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Nanotechnology Provides the "McGuffin" for Summer Movie Blockbuster

To those of you not familiar with the term “McGuffin,” according to Alfred Hitchcock, the term comes from the story of two men traveling on a train.

One man asks the other what is that you’re carrying in your luggage. The other man responds by saying it’s a McGuffin. When the first man asks what a McGuffin is, the other says it’s a gun for hunting lions in the Scottish highlands. The first man, nonplussed, responds that there are no lions in the Scottish highlands to which the other man quickly replies than that is no McGuffin.

In other words, a McGuffin is an empty an almost entirely meaningless plot device.

It seems that nanotechnology is becoming the new McGuffin for silly Hollywood action movies with the release of this summer’s blockbuster “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.”

In this case, the McGuffin are little nanobots that are put into a warhead and then launched at a target where they begin to devour the target until they are turned off by remote control. In the trailers you can see the green swarm of nanobugs devouring the Eiffel Tower.

I am afraid nanotechnology is not fairing too well in popular culture it always seems to be a threat whether it be Michael Crichton’s “Prey” or the television program “Eleventh Hour”.

I guess it’s hard to make cleaner drinking water, cheaper alternative energy or better anti-cancer drug treatments into an exciting and compelling plot element.

Is More Being Spent on its Toxicology than on Nanotech Itself?

As nanotech businesses fall deeper into the abyss, and the high-flyers sink into non-existence, you would think with all the government talk of nanotech being the future and stimulus dollars being spent that one would hear about some actual money being spent to keep nanotech companies going.

Sure, billions are invested in government and university research labs that are supposed to lead to some commercial applications. But they never do because the road from a lab prototype to a commercial product is expensive and there are little or no financial means of support to carry it off.

Shiny and new research centers producing all sorts of research ranging from the “who cares” to the “could be significant” abound but the commercialization of nanotech continues to flounder.

Meanwhile there is an endless chorus of the possible dangers of nanomaterials and their proliferation in consumer products. The last bit always leaves me scratching my head. I could have bought ‘nano pants’ 5 years ago and 5 years later that’s still about all I can buy if I go out looking to buy a nanotech-enabled product.

Despite these sinking fortunes for nanotech companies and products, some researchers manage to strike it rich. A professor at Duke University has just received $14 million to figure out the possible detrimental effects of silver nanoparticles, particularly those used in antibacterial socks.

Well done! Chapeaux! And all of that, but imagine if that kind of money was spent to support companies trying to bridge the financial chasm between a prototype and a product, I might actually be able to go out and buy a pair of nanosilver socks.

Nanotechnology Adds to Police Arsenal Against Impaired Drivers

Aside from agility tests, police have had no technological way of detecting the use of controlled substances by drivers other than for alcohol. Cheech and Chong could merrily drive down the highway in their van made out cannabis and be stoned out of their minds and there was little that the police could do to prove it.

According to this rather colorful article, which uses terms like “stoners and dopers,” Philips has developed a hand-held device that employs nanotechnology based on the use of electromagnets and nanoparticles to “separate the sober from the impaired”. 

The article points out that the Netherlands-based Philips will roll this out initially in Europe. But oddly the article raises the specter of the device being a “privacy-invading drug tester.” I am not sure how much privacy you are entitled to when driving impaired on a public road, but in any case I sure this is not the kind of invasion of privacy caused by nanotech that has some so concerned.

Five Years After the Release of Royal Society's Nanotech Report

I guess I have become inured to the idea that there is little synthesis on the issues of the day rather only antithesis. That’s why five years after the release of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report “Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties”, I am not surprised that it seems as though we haven’t progressed much far beyond name calling regarding the safety of nanomaterials.

The Responsible Nano Forum, which has been quite busy of late with the launching of their new Nano&me website, has just released a report  putting the last five years into some kind of perspective.

Andrew Maynard on his 20/20 Science blog has followed up on this report providing his own perspective on the situation, which scans about right.

While I can appreciate the arguments on both sides (to an extent), it all seems so needlessly polemical.

On the one hand you have Allan Shalleck over at Nanotech-Now  arguing that the media have been following sensational headlines and have missed the other side of the story which is there has been zero reported health-related issues caused by nanomaterials…thus far.

Then on the other hand you have some NGOs claiming that the environmental benefits of nanomaterials, such as pollution remediation and clean drinking water, which have been used to counterbalance their reported potential negative effects, are over hyped.

Meanwhile you have everyone trying somehow to engage the public on the issue of nanotechnology, or at least get them mildly interested.

Aside from the fact that we don’t really have as much hard experimental data today on the safety of nanomaterials as one might have expected five years ago when the RS and RAE report was published, perhaps of more interest is that the general public not only doesn’t care, but they still don’t even understand what nanotechnology is. Who can blame them really?

Robots: The Expensive Way to Prepare Cheap Food

If you've ever watched the giant container loaders in Elizabeth N.J. or Yokohama Harbor, you've probably wondered if the same robotic technologies could be used to make ramen soup.

Okay, maybe you never have, but someone seems to—Kenji Nagoya, said to be an industrial robot manufacturer and owner of a new fast-food restaurant where bowls of ramen in pork broth are prepared almost entirely by a pair of robots that look, to me at least, a bit like the container loaders I see from the New Jersey Turnpike.

In a widely copied Reuters video report, Nagoya says, “The benefits of using robots as ramen chefs include the accuracy of timing in boiling noodles, precise movements in adding toppings and consistency in the taste."

The robots are reported to be able to make only 80 bowls a day (though the automated process, which includes heating but not making the broth, is said to take less than 2 minutes). They sell for $7 apiece. That gives the shop a total daily revenue of $560, which has to cover the cost of the ingredients, electricity, rent, and some humans make the broth, serve customers, take their money, and so on. And the robots themselves of course.

The shop therefore doesn't make a profit for Nagoya, but it's a great proof of concept and might someday lead to restaurant robots inexpensive enough to replace all those inprecise high school students currently preparing our fast food. (By the way, it's unclear to me whether Nagoya has anything to do with the soon-to-be-closing robot musuem in the town of Nagoya.)

There's an additional video of the Nagoya ramen robots here.

The Nagoya robot story has completely overshadowed a robot “somewhere in Yamanashi” Japan that also helps make ramen soup. Restauranteur Yoshihira Uchida, for whom the robot was created, had the exact opposite strategy of having the robot custom-prepare the broth with “40 million recipes”—combinations of broth ingredients—while a human chef makes the noodles.

This Article Has Been Revised to Reflect the Following Correction

Last week, a slew of news outlets (emphasis on “outlets,” as if it were a contraction of “outhouse” and “toilets”) published a story about a man allergic to a particular radio signal. Not just a particular radio frequency, which would be crazy enough, but a particular air interface, a particular protocol, if you will: Wi-Fi signals. No, really. Here's the Daily Mail's headline:

Allergic to wi-fi! How 'electrosmog' leaves Afterlife DJ in agony

I know what you're thinking. Wi-Fi, at least the most popular flavors of it, uses the same 2.4 GHz frequency as cordless phones, garage doors, and the microwave oven that Steve Miller, aka “Afterlife DJ,” probably pops his popcorn in. How could someone be allergic to Wi-Fi and not a phone or microwave using the same frequency?

You shouldn't have to know anything about the IEEE 802.11 standard to instantly see that the story is nonsense, but apparently you do if you if you work for any of the publications that took to the story like a lemming to the sea.

Fox News—you know, the fair and balanced people—took it and ran ( Man Allergic to Wi-Fi, Makes Him Sick, Dizzy, Confused), apparently getting it, like a virus, from The Sun.

This isn't an occasional phenomenon, it seems integral to the Web. But not just the Web, it's probably a story as old as history itself, or at least the 1970s. The national public radio watchdog show, “On The Media,” had a great piece (“Too Good to Check”) this weekend about crazy claims about Walter Cronkite that have been around for decades and that resurfaced on the occasion of his recent death.

Did you know, for instance, that Uncle Walter is so identified with the news business that in Sweden an anchorman is called a "Kronkiter?" And speaking of anchorman, did you know that the word was coined in the '50s to define Cronkite's role on broadcast TV? Turns out, despite what many media eulogies would have you believe, neither of those facts I just asserted are exactly true.

On the Media host Bob Garfield traced the virus's 30-year etiology with the help of Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with the Kronkiter bit. Read me, please, the excerpt from the AP obit.

BEN ZIMMER: Well, the obituary that ran in many newspapers came from The Associated Press. The version that ran in The Chicago Tribune, for instance, said, "Cronkite was the broadcaster to whom the title 'anchorman' was first applied. In Sweden, anchors were sometimes termed “Kronkiters'", that's with a k. "In Holland, they were "Cronkiters.'" That's with a C.

BOB GARFIELD: It scans. I mean, it sort of sounds possible. But what you did was go back to see if it was, you know, true. What did you discover?

BEN ZIMMER: Well, I was not able to discover any evidence in Swedish, Dutch or any other language that news anchors were ever called Kronkiters. So I tried to figure out, well, who started telling this anecdote? And when I first looked, the earliest example I could find was in a 1978 book called Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News, written by Gary Paul Gates, who was at one time a news writer for Cronkite.

Then in 1979, David Halberstam wrote The Powers That Be, and similarly he had, in Sweden, anchormen were known as Kronkiters. It seemed that these were the earliest examples of this story being told. And what I did was I actually contacted Gary Paul Gates to find out where he got the story from, and it turns out he says he got the story from Halberstam.

At least the Web, when it taketh away the truth, can also giveth it. For example, when a responsible publication messes up, it can correct it with lightning speed. And not in some miniscule correction published in an obscure corner of the paper days later that leaves the original nonsense untouched. The corrections can be made to the original article (something as, the Daily Mail, and The Sun have yet to do, by the way), with, hopefully, an editorial note describing the changes-all seven of them, in the case of—speaking of Walter Cronkite—an “appraisal” of the late great newscaster written by New York Times ace appraiser Alessandra Stanley.

Check out the mammoth 200-word correction (numbers added):

An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite's career included a number of errors. (1) In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and (2)referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite's coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, (3) Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. (4) “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. (5) A communications satellite used to relay correspondents' reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. (6) Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, (7) the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

Correction: All eight corrections. A week later, the Times added yet one more:

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: August 1, 2009 An appraisal on July 18 about Walter Cronkite's career misstated the name of the ABC evening news broadcast. While the program was called “World News Tonight” when Charles Gibson became anchor in May 2006, it is now “World News With Charles Gibson,” not “World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.”

Why stop there? We can get to an even 10 for for the Times on the subject of Cronkite if we count the two—yes, two—separate corrections to its obituary of (as opposed to appraisal for) Der Kronkiter.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 21, 2009 Because of an editing error, an obituary Saturday about the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite misspelled the name of the church in Manhattan where his family plans to hold a private funeral service. It is St. Bartholomew's, not Bartholemew's.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 23, 2009 An obituary on Saturday about Walter Cronkite misidentified the country in which he crash-landed a glider as a United Press correspondent in World War II. It was the Netherlands, not Belgium.

It's a wonderful thing, the Web, a gargantuan fact-checking machine it is. We're lucky to have one. It's just too bad we need one so often, in the era of the Web. Like the pharmacy owner in the Mad Magazine cartoon who sells both chocolate ice cream and acne medication, the Web fuels its own arms war of truth and falsity.

Devices for Diabetics Expand Inward and Outward

Funding and advising the development of an artificial pancreas is a major long-term initiative at the FDA. A couple interesting advances have recently been made, both commercially and in research, that seem to bring us closer to this goal.

According to the FDA, an artificial pancreas would consist of three components:

"(1) an infusion pump to deliver the required drug, many of which are already available; (2) a continuous glucose monitor, several of which have been approved by the FDA for tracking and trending glucose levels; and (3) an algorithm to communicate between the pump(s) and glucose monitor. An algorithm will receive information from the glucose monitor and convert it to instructions for the infusion pump."

Some continuous blood glucose monitoring devices are already available on the market (here's a good comparative chart).  All give periodic updates of blood glucose levels measured from a sensor inserted just beneath the skin. But all fall short, in some serious way or another, of what an artificial pancreas would require.A huge problem, it seems, is the lifespan of the device. The sensors for these models only last a few day and have to be reinserted regularly. Furthermore, the sensor is only partially implanted, and connects to a transmitter through the skin.

Last month, engineers at the University of Calgary published an alternative design that mounts a glucose sensor onto a transponder chip. An external reader inductively powers the chip while reading the glucose level, eliminating the need for it to hook up to a battery powered transmitter. This makes the  device very small, and thus more durable in the body. Removing the need for a battery also means that the entire chip and sensor can be fully implanted under the skin.

The design also uses an alternative chemical reaction to measure the glucose levels in the body, one that doesn't require oxygen. The oxygen-driven reaction used by other devices produces hydrogen peroxide that can corrode the sensor.

The device hasn't been tested in an organism yet, and once that happens it will be interesting to see how accurate it actually is, but these are definitely ideas that could improve available models.

Another thing that is changing is the extent to which these glucose monitors can communicate with computers and other devices. The MyGlucoHealth system uses a traditional pin prick glucose meter but has installed it with a USB cable and bluetooth capabilities that make it possible to synchronize data with a diabetes management system. It also keep doctors and patients up to date with individuals' glucose level fluctuations with text messages and email. This kind of network is likely to be vital in a system that closes the loop with an automatic insulin infusion pump.

Web 2.0 Meets Public Engagement in Nanotechnology

The UK government is taking this idea of public engagement for nanotechnology quite seriously. And it seems that the interactive capabilities of the Web 2.0 was just the tool they needed to put this seriousness to work.

First we had BIS (Department for Business Innovation & Skills) launch a website earlier this month that urged people to offer their opinions on the UK government’s nanotechnology strategy and even shape its final form.

The premise of the BIS site was characterized by at least one UK-based nanotech expert as a “crowd-sourced nanotechnology strategy”. With the BIS site you are provided a SWOT analysis for each chapter that are divided between cross-cutting themes and industry sectors and then each of these chapters has a handful of questions.

But for all the questions it remains a fairly static site. The questions are already posed for you rather than you posing your questions, for instance. And visually it gives off the aura that this material is not to be touched. One might say it’s the 1.0 of the Web 2.0 in design and feel.

On the other hand, a new UK public engagement website called Nano&me which was set up by an organization called the Responsible Nano Forum and funded by a grant from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills takes the visual and interactive capabilities of Web 2.0 and turns it up to 11.

I should say in the name of full disclosure that I helped in the editing of some of the site’s copy. But this material almost seems incidental in the context of the site, which provides every visitor an opportunity to produce their own copy, their own point of view and to set the ground rules for the debate. Quite different from the BIS site, which tells you what the questions are and asks you to just respond to those.

I think if one were to really press the owners of these two sites on what they expected these sites to do, you would probably finally get the answer that they are experiments and the truth is the outcomes are quite uncertain.

As a self-confessed cynic, I am not sure that these sites perform much of a civic duty other than to give politicos something to cover their pudendum and for the public to have the false sense that they are actually involved in shaping some policy even if it’s something as esoteric and ultimately meaningless to them as nanotechnology.

But even as a cynic, I have to admit that it is hard to know how these sites will turn out and what kind of impact they will ultimately have.

Measure for Measure

My daughter is moving to Colorado, and she and her older brother recently took a four-day road trip from his house in Pennsylvania to her new apartment. They both posted their photos on Shutterfly; many of the shots are essentially the same.

The big difference between their photo albums—and it’s makes a huge difference—is that he took a few extra minutes to add captions. So from his pictures I know that the bronze statue of Abe Lincoln they both stood next to is in Vandalia, which was once the capital of Illinois; that the baseball game they went to was in Kansas City; that the giant cross by the highway is in Effingham, Illinois—which is enough information for a Google search that says that the cross is 198 feet tall and was built by the Cross Foundation.

Of course, location information, such as Vandalia, Ill., and Kansas City, Mo., can already be included in a photograph’s metadata, if the camera has GPS. In my ideal universe, all cameras would, and they’d even have little keyboards so you could add a caption right when you take a picture. Photo metadata is phenomenally useful, and, in a world of photo clouds like Shutterfly and Flickr, it’s getting ever more so.

You know what else needs metadata? Engineering numbers. That’s the premise behind Allen Razdow’s new start-up, True Engineering Technology.

Razdow was a co-founder of MathSoft, the company behind Mathcad. In a way reminiscent of Stephen Wolfram’s idea that the Mathematica universe would benefit from databases that could be queried (thus, Wolfram Alpha), Razdow decided that the software on an engineer’s desktop, like Mathcad—but also Microsoft Office—needed metadata for the numbers that move from one program to another. If I had to choose one of these ideas as a winner, it would be Razdow’s.

The idea apparently came slowly to Razdow, who wrote MathCAD back in the 1980s (for MS-DOS!), and with good reason—it requires you to think of numbers in a paradoxical way. While the common conception of computers is that they turn everything into numbers, Razdow’s insight is that the reality is just the reverse.

We take an engineering number, maybe it’s the hydrogen permeability of palladium, or the specific gravity of the railroad ties you just shipped to a customer, and put it into a report that strips it of almost all of its meaning—what reference book the number came from, or when and where it was measured and by whom, the tolerances, and so forth. We take numbers that are ripe with engineering meaning and mathematical context and turn them into flat text. Often—and paradoxically this happens particularly with those bastions of number-crunching, spreadsheets—you don’t even directly know the unit of measurement, because that’s contained in a column heading or a footnote or some other surrounding text.

Consider all the numbers that get used and reused for years, within your company and outside of it. Imagine you’ve worked out a more precise measurement of the hydrogen permeability of the particular palladium alloy to be used in an upcoming product. Or auditors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Food and Drug Administration have arrived to examine a new report that contains 70 different key engineering numbers that need to be checked, 50 of which were taken from a report that was vetted last year.

Razdow has in mind a plug-in that would encourage you to create metadata for important numbers and would let a number retain that metadata when it’s cut and pasted from one application to another, whether it’s MathCAD to a Word document, or to a PDF, or vice versa. You can hover over someone’s number and see some of that metadata, or, if they make it public, you can click on it and get all of it from a Web page devoted to that number on a public site that Razdow’s company will maintain. True Engineering Technology will make its money by selling a server appliance that will host and manage engineering numbers within an enterprise.

It’s a clever and much-needed idea. Like a lot of other Web 2.0 notions these days—think RSS, for example—it will need widespread adoption by users—in this case engineers—and the software applications that they use. Here’s hoping that happens.

How Will Nano Change the World?

Thus is posed the question for the new video contest put on by the American Chemical Society. In the first contest, the question was simply “What is Nano?” and it turned out that question was best answered with puppets in full-throated song.

I enjoy watching videos as much as the next guy, but I have not quite figured out what purpose these videos are supposed to serve other than to compete in a contest. Are the editors of the ACS’ Chemical & Engineering News supposed to become informed of how nanotechnology is going to impact the world in a way that they hadn’t considered before? Are these videos supposed to become teaching tools for pre-schoolers as in the case with the puppet video?

I am entertained but I don’t get the purpose, or maybe there isn’t one.



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