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Nanofood companies reduce risk by staying mute

In a recent opinion piece over at Nanowerk, itâ''s argued that the food industry has pulled so far back from discussing their use of nanotechnology that they are allowing anti-nanotech activists to frame the debate over the safety of nanotechnology in food.

The subtitle of the piece â''how the industry is blowing itâ'' manages to frame the issue in such a way that it seems there is something to lose by food companies not discussing the specifics of their material science labs beyond what they report to the Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety of a new food additive.

There may well be, but the food companies could lose out equally by actually engaging in the debate.

The fallacy in the argument of the editorial seems to me the idea that â''safety-consciousâ'' and â''mature, grown-upsâ'' want to hear both sides of the argument and then come to an informed opinion. Itâ''s hard to believe that argument about any subject, but especially so regarding food, which is such a personal matter regarding what we decide to put into our bodies.

The editorialâ''s premise leads to a machine-gun series of questions:

â'¢ Why not come out guns blazing and educate the public about the exciting opportunities for nanotechnologies in the food sector?

â'¢ Why not demonstrate that the risk aspects of the technology are being thoroughly investigated?

â'¢ Why invite the cliché of 'bad corporate citizens' â'' companies that keep information from the public and hide the risky aspects of what they are doing?

The answer seems to me that the publicâ''s opinion is rarely, if ever, determined by reasoned consideration of all the data. It depends more on personal biases and appearances rather than facts.

I imagine that the food companies have the position that to engage in a debate will indicate that there is some controversy to argue over. To ignore the issue will result in the public ignoring it as well.

Currently there is no shortage of second-guessing on what the public wants or how it will react to nanotechnology and there is even NSF-funded research to codify personal biases when it comes to nanotechnology.

Itâ''s a difficult game to play anticipating the vagaries of the consuming public, and I imagine the food companies want to avoid what my mother would have described as being â''too smart by half.â''

By thinking that you can reason your way into people understanding the science and then making a rational decision, you just opened the door to people drawing their own conclusions based on their own flimsy-based notions. All they needed in order to draw these misguided judgments was news that there was some controversy out there that big bad companies were trying cover up with science.

There will always be people who happily eat Twinkies without a second thought of whatâ''s in them or how theyâ''re made, and there will always be those who will keep a strict organic vegan diet and the twain shall never meet.

For those Twinkie eaters out there, who spend less time agonizing over the ingredients in their food than their vegan brethren, there is the anticipation that the Food and Drug Administration is keeping an eye on the ingredients for them. Until the FDA report otherwise, food companies will likely continue using nanotechnology without engaging in a potentially lose-lose debate over its safety.

U.S. Mutual Funds Starting to Address Climate Risk

Mutual funds, having long resisted shareholder resolutions demanding they focus more on financial risks arising from climate change, are starting to have second thoughts. That is the central conclusion of a report released today by Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmentalists that encourages big financial players to factor environmental sustainability into their strategic decision making. Among other things, Ceres directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk, with 60 institutional investors whose collective assets total $5 trillion.

The Ceres mutual funds report, covering the years 1004-2007, finds that in that period firms were somewhat less likely to oppose shareholder resolutions on climate or more likely to abstain in proxy fights about climate risks. Such financial risks, says Ceres president Mindy S. Lubber, can include penalties caused by regulatory changes (e.g. carbon caps or taxes), the costs of Katrina-type disasters, law suits against emitters, and â''reputational damageâ'' (being seen as a bad actor rather than a good guy).

In previous reports and actions, Ceres initially focused on utilities and energy firms with big carbon footprints, encouraging investors to demand formulation of long-term strategies that would reduce footprints and exposure to financial risk. Then it took on the automobile industry, and takes satisfaction from Fordâ''s move last year to assess its own contributions to the climate problem. Increasingly, Ceres sees climate risk as an economy-wide issue.

In its most recent report on mutual funds, Ceres says that most firms still are resisting shareholder action, with some standout exceptions such as Goldman Sachs, which has supported some resolutions outright and also has steered its investments in directions that minimize exposure to climate risks. â''Schwab, MassMutual and Janus also registered relatively high suppoirt for climate resolutions compared to other mutual fund firms,â'' the report says.

Lubber, speaking in a media teleconference this morning, asserted that investors should be â''scrubbing their portfoliosâ'' for climate risk the same way theyâ''ve had to scrub their sub-prime mortgages.

Transnational Green Energy Lab Established at MIT

Europeâ''s leading solar energy research, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, and MIT are jointly establishing a Center for Sustainable Energy Systems at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The center will emphasize use of novel materials and techniques to bring down the costs of solar systems, and advanced construction technology to reduce the energy consumption of new and retrofitted buildings.

Itâ''s a measure of the importance attached to sustainable energy systems that the German foreign minister showed up in Cambridge to witness, with MITâ''s president and the Massachusetts energy secretary, the signing of the centerâ''s memo of understanding. Besides getting an initial $5 million in funding from MIT, the center is receiving $1 million from Britainâ''s National Gridâ''the organization created when the UK deregulated and â''unbundledâ'' its electricity system, and which now has acquired energy companies outside the UK. (It was a surprise to this blogger when he learned his natural gas in Brooklyn was being supplied by Englandâ''s electricity system operator.)

The Fraunhofer solar institute in Freiburg is one of 56 German institutes of the Fraunhofer Society, a national organization partly funded by the federal government, and partly by contract research done for public and private sector customers. The society is a close analogue of the Max Planck Society, a network of institutes dedicated to basic research, many of them very prestigious. Fraunhofer concentrates exclusively on applied research and, increasingly, has global connections.

Though itâ''s unusual for Fraunhofer to jointly sponsor research centers outside Germany, itâ''s not unprecedented in the United States. The first such center was set up a dozen years ago, and there are now five in allâ''two in Michigan, one connected with Boston University, one Maryland, and one in Delaware.

In all, Fraunhofer supports about 12,700 researchers, 160 of them in the United States.

Putting flowers on the grave of Ampex Corp.

sign01.jpgOn March 30, Ampex Corp. filed for Chapter 11. The company, once THE place for audio and video innovation, has been withering away for a long time, surviving in recent years on specialized archival data storage systems and licensing video technology developed in its heyday.

Last week, San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy declared Friday Ampex Appreciation Day. He reported that Ampexâ''s headcount is down to 101 from a peak of 12,000. â''Watching Ampex,â'' he wrote, â''is like watching some beloved relative stagger and wheeze and shuffle around the house.â''

Mike, I have to say, I donâ''t think the company is going to recover. But I, too, have fond feelings for this venerable corporation. I spend a lot of time interviewing technologyâ''s pioneers, and Iâ''m never surprised to hear when someoneâ''s roots go back to Ampex.

Ray Dolby, founder of Dolby Labs and noise reduction pioneer, started his career at Ampex as a high school student running a movie projector for a meeting, he went on to work on the video recorder project there. Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, whose company Atari essentially started todayâ''s videogame industry, and other videogame pioneers also started their engineering careers at Ampex.

I visited the Ampex building once, back in 1988 when I was working on an article on invention of the VCR. At that point, Ampexâ''s past was already more interesting than its present. It was a thrill to be where so many technologies started. Besides video recording, Ampex was responsible for the first tape-delay radio broadcast, the first multitrack tape recorders, the data recorders on U.S. space missions from 1958 forward, video recording, helical scan recording (used in video cassette recorders), slow-motion instant replay, the first commercial video paint system, and the ADO, that enabled television stations to whiz video around on the screen.

The campus I visited disappeared, for the most part, sold in 1996 and replaced with now-empty modern buildings that were once Excite-At-Home and came to represent dot-com boom excess; theyâ''ll soon be converted to a medical clinic. The Ampex sign, however, remains as a part of Silicon Valley history.

Do you remember Ampex? Tell us your Ampex stories in the comments below.

Photo by Keith Graham

John A. Wheeler, Giant of Physics (1911-2008)

The physicist who coined the term black hole to describe the densest phenomenon in the cosmos has passed away at age 96. John Archibald Wheeler worked with some of the most important figures in the history of science and eventually became, himself, one of the towering giants of 20th-century physics.

According to an online account from the Associated Press earlier today, Wheeler succumbed to pneumonia Sunday at his home in Hightstown, N.J., not far from Princeton University, where he served as a professor of physics from 1938 to 1976, alongside some of the world's most renowned theoreticians.

Wheeler received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1933 for his research into the properties of helium. In 1937, after a year of study in Denmark under the tutelage of Niels Bohr, he formulated the scattering-matrix, which relates the initial state and the final state for an interaction of particles. Also called the S-matrix, Wheeler's formula became a fundamental tool in the field of quantum physics.

His understanding of the basic forces at work at the subatomic level led Wheeler to join a growing cadre of advanced physicists in the late 1930s who believed that a sufficiently large fission event could produce a chain reaction capable of great destruction. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Bohr relocated to the United States and joined Wheeler to work on a model of nuclear fission.

When hostilities escalated into World War II, Wheeler suspended his academic career to participate in the American atomic bomb endeavor, the Manhattan Project, offering key insights into the physics involved. Afterwards, he volunteered to work on the next-generation nuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb in the late 1940s.

With his government research finished, Wheeler returned to Princeton, where he collaborated with Albert Einstein in the waning years of his life on a unified field theory of the physical forces of nature. Continuing in this elusive pursuit after Einstein's death, Wheeler described a theoretical curiosity he called a "wormhole" that should exist in nature if the principles of relativity were correct. This same research led him to posit, in 1967, that extremely large masses throughout the universe could collapse under the force of their own gravity to form what he termed a "black hole."

Further pursuit of the role of gravity in a Grand Unified Theory of physics led to his collaboration with Bryce DeWitt on the Wheeler-DeWitt equation, which he later described as the "wave function of the Universe."

Later in life, Wheeler became a champion of a form of cosmological anthropism, which states that humans should take into account the constraints that human existence as observers impose on the sort of universe that can be observed. His version of this line of thinking is known as the Participatory Anthropic Principle.

Recently, he stated: "We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what's happening in the distant past why should we need more?"

Throughout his career at Princeton and later the University of Texas, where he served out his last years in academia before retirement, Wheeler was known for the enthusiasm he exhibited for education. Even after he had achieved fame, he continued to teach freshman physics, telling protégés such as Richard Feynman, that young minds were the most important to inspire.

He inspired many.

DARPA's 50th Birthday Present: Hyp-hop-notherapy

What do you get the advanced research projects agency that has it all?

darpaquarium.jpg

A persistent rumor haunting DARPA has it that the agency has a tough time finding program managers for its high-risk, high-reward research. In what was possibly a self-aware nod to that rumor, but was more likely a crushingly obtuse PR move, every table was adorned with pens and several sheets of paper titled "New Ideas."

ideas.jpg

"no more fish at banquets."

Every table was also adorned with several bottles of wine. That coincidence can't have been accidental. I settled on snark and made my case against serving 1600 individual pieces of salmon at enormous events (although there might be a DARPA grand challenge in there: how do you keep 1600 pieces of salmon perfectly cooked and warm through three speeches?).

If only the trusty Danger Room readership had been at the party with me.

"How can I find out more about sending the Army a proposal of my own?" writes one intrepid Danger Room reader. "I created, "hyp-hop-notherapy", self-empowering poetry using acrostic writing."

Read the whole letter.

Airline maintenance games are old news

atccover.JPGBack in 1986 IEEE Spectrum took a long hard look at the state of the U.S. commercial aviation system. As part of that effort, I spent several months researching air traffic control along with fellow writer Paul Wallich, who also was talking to the folks that maintained the aircraft themselves. I remember being horrified at how the airlines and sometimes even the FAA played fast and loose with maintenance rules. Paul and I learned all sorts of new language. â''Put the timber to it,â'' meant to sign off on work that was never done, assuming itâ''ll be noticed on the next inspection. â''Discrepancy,â'' was the FAA word for overlooking a defect noticed by mechanics, or putting a plane back into service before a set of repairs is complete. Paul talked to a lot of mechanics, and found out that inspection documents often didnâ''t reflect the true state of the aircraft. An example one mechanic gave: a check at American Airlines found that an emergency exit door was stuck. He got it through an FAA inspection with a liberal spraying of WD-40, but shortly thereafter discovered the door was sticking again. Still, he had signed paperwork in hand, so released the plane to fly.

This kind of thing happens all the time, mechanics said. And sometimes FAA inspectors, assigned to remote regional offices, go along; John Oâ''Brien, then representing the Air Line Pilots Association, told Paul, â''The further from headquarters you are as a inspector, the more on your own you are. Unless youâ''re very independent and strong-willed, you may be subject to all kinds of pressures and influence.â''

Since then, Iâ''ve flown with my eyes wide open. I know that broken lights and loose compartment doors arenâ''t going to get fixed any time soon, and that a lot more is broken than I can see. I know that a lot of maintenance can be legally deferred until an aircraft reaches a maintenance base or parts are available, and airlines play games with what that means. And I reassure myself that redundancies mean that the plane wonâ''t come crashing down out of the sky, and that pilots are smart enough not to take off if things are really bad. Though I had to wonder when I was on an aircraft that made an emergency 1 a.m. landing at a closed, icy, Midwest airport because it lost one of its hydraulic systems, if maybe a minimum requirement that two of three hydraulic systems needed to be working wasnâ''t quite enough.

And last month, when I got a 5 a.m. phone call that my 9 a.m. flight was being canceled for a â''mechanicalâ'', and I was rebooked on a conveniently half-empty afternoon flight, I shrugged my shoulders at yet another airline game. It was clear to me that the airline was going save money by combining two empty flights, and was using the â''deferred maintenanceâ'' list as an excuse to pull a plane out of service. After all, what passenger would want to go ahead and fly on a â''brokenâ'' plane, never mind that, had that flight been sold out, the maintenance would have continued to be deferred.

So now the FAA is cracking down and making the airlines do all the inspections and maintenance they were supposed to be doing all along. And flights are being canceled, and tens of thousands of passengers inconvenienced. Of course, with the high cost of fuel, many of those flights were likely not making a profit anyway, so stranding passengers isnâ''t costing the airlines anything but good will, something thatâ''s been in short supply for a while. Not that making the industry do the job that itâ''s supposed to do is a bad thing, but come on, does anyone really think the FAA would continue to force planes out of service if most of those flights were profitable?

Itâ''s simply a convenient time right now to do a little deferred maintenance and enforcement. And during this little contraction, airlines will be able to jack up prices because of seat shortages while they tout their concern for customer safety. And flying may really be safer, for a while, anyway, until profit margins again prompt airlines to â''put the timberâ'' to problems instead of really dealing with then.

China Counterfeiting Casts Pall on Nuclear Power Revival

Though signs abound that the U.S. energy industry is expecting a nuclear energy renaissance, sharp questions have been raised about the ability of the domestic power plant construction industry to deliver. Now ace energy reporter Rebecca Smith is reporting in The Wall Street Journal evidence of substandard counterfeit components being sold to operating atomic power plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has alerted utilities of two cases.

One case involved sale of circuit breakers designed to protect equipment from electrical surges: in all, 140,000 breakers sold in the United States as products of Franceâ''s Schneider Electric Co. turned out to have been made in China, and a few may have found their way into a nuclear power plant operated by Duke Energy Corp. A second case involved water valves for the Southern Companyâ''s Hatch nuclear power plant in Georgia.

At present, according to Smith, applications for 15 new U.S. nuclear power plants are pending in eight states. But how fast could manufacturers actually deliver all the parts needed? The NRC chairman notes that the number of U.S. suppliers has declined from 1,350 in 1977 to about 700 today. Last year, an executive with Southern Company told this reporter that the U.S. industry could initiate at most two or three new reactor projects per year, for the time. In terms of energy delivery, that is roughly equivalent to the rate at which wind power currently is being expanded in the United States.

DARPA's 50th birthday

So that's the sound of one hand clapping

darpaquarium4.jpg

DARPA celebrated its 50th anniversary on Thursday night in the windowless basement of the Hilton Washington; 1600 academics, research scientists, defense contractors, and political heavyweights crowded into a huge subterranean oval ballroom for some dry salmon, slimy julienned carrots, and speechifyin'. The hotel's event team had gone to town-- yellow and blue bunting adorned everything, and the cavernous ceilings were undulating with blue projections of the famous DARPA logo. The effect was rather Star Trek. You could also be forgiven for thinking you were inside an aquarium.

Because the Vice President was speaking at the event, the only way into the party was through metal detectors. Ladies handed tiny beaded purses to officers wearing pastel latex gloves-- a postmodern blend of black tie and airport security.

metal.jpg

At least we didn't have to take off our shoes.

Drink and bathroom lines intertwined and were inseparable from the rest of the mass of humanity crowded into the no man's land between the metal detectors and the ballroom. The pot of gold at the end of the drink line, I have to say, was disappointing.

drinks.jpg

[insert Defense Department spending joke here]

The Vice President's speech was amusing yet boilerplate, but as former secretary of defense, this is a popular man in these parts. Lines like "when I was Secretary of Defense -- the good old days, when I had real power in this town" were met with stampeding roars of approval.

But then, a bit of unintended drama: Cheney told the assembled samurai that he brought them "congratulations and good wishes from the President of the United States, George W. Bush."

An audience that until then had clapped at every word including "and" and "the" suddenly found its hands paralyzed. A silence ensued-- not one of those on-purpose protest silences, but the kind that happens organically when no one in particular can quite bring himself to clap. Then everyone begins to second guess his clapping instincts-- like not knowing when to clap at the moments of silence that perforate a symphony. And yet, the VP is not continuing his speech, so clapping must be required. And yet-- will you be the first to clap? What if you're wrong?

1600 of these individual thought bubbles filled that windowless ballroom, so it was getting a little thick when suddenly a frenetic applause burst from somewhere in the back of the oval. One man had taken it upon himself to knock down the first domino. The rest of the 1600 followed with tepid clapping and Cheney moved ahead with his speech. Disaster had been averted.

Wind Energy Just Niche? Disabuse Yourself Now!

If youâ''re still one of those people who tend to think of wind energy as a bit exotic, only suitable for exceptional situations, even then not likely to contribute much to the big picture, itâ''s time to stop being that kind of person once and for all. According to a report this week from Worldwatch, about 20,000 megawatts of wind capacity was installed in 2007, bringing the world total to 94,100 megawatts, or, more concisely, 94 GW. Wind was the leading source of new electricity in Europe and second only to natural gas in the United States.

Allowing for the customary factor-of-three discounting of wind capacity to account for wind's intermittency, 94 gigawatts is the equivalent of about 31 GW of baseload coal or nuclear generationâ''the same thing, in other words, as building 31 standard nuclear power plants. In terms of average household use rates, which often are put at about 1 kW, 31 GW is enough power for 31 million homes.

The United States led the way last year, adding 5,244 megawatts of wind, followed by Chinaâ''a surprise! (see next issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine)â''and Spain. Overall, Germany still has the largest wind total, more than 22 GWâ''the equivalent of four or five 1 GW baseload plants, taking into account that the discounting is higher for Germany (more like a factor of 4 or 5) because, having pushed wind harder, theyâ''ve installed turbines in some less than ideal locations.

Even so, Germanyâ''s socialist and green leaders believe that wind can continue to meet most of the countryâ''s additional energy demand in the coming years, though more conservative leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel do not agree.

According to another Worldwatch report, wind investments accounted for 47 percent of global investment in renewable energy technology last year, followed by photovoltaics, which was about 30 percent. New solar PV capacity came to 2.8 GW in 2007, according to Worldwatchâ''s estimate, and about 3.43 according to a recent Lux report. Both estimate the cost of the new PV investments at about $21.2 or 21.3 billion.

The value of wind investments last year came to $31 billion. On a dollar per watt basis, that means that new wind is costing about $1.55, new PV between $7.6 (Worldwatch) and $6.2 (Lux). In other words, per unit capacity, photovoltaic energy is between four and five times as expensive as wind.

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