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When Satellites Collide, Confusion Follows

The unprecedented crash of two major satellites had aeronautics experts around the world scratching their heads today.

Yesterday, an operational U.S. Iridium communications satellite plowed into a defunct Russian military communications satellite some 800 kilometers (500 miles) above the skies over Siberia, smashing both into pieces. The impact has left a debris field traveling at 200 meters per second in an elliptical orbit 500 to 1300 kilometers overhead, according to an article from the Associated Press.

The AP account states that Iridium Satellite LLC, based in Bethesda, Md., claims that it was not responsible for the high-altitude collision; but a prominent Russian space expert said that he did not understand how Iridium and its government space partners, such as NASA, could have missed the presence of the slower satellite in its direct path--and taken action to prevent the accident.

"It could have been a computer failure or a human error," Igor Lisov told the AP. "It also could be that they only were paying attention to smaller debris and ignoring the defunct satellites." Lisov noted the debris could threaten a significant number of earth-tracking and weather satellites in similar orbits. "The other 65 Iridium satellites in similar orbits will face the most serious risk, and there are numerous earth-tracking and weather satellites in nearby orbits," he added.

In a press release posted to its website today, Iridium said that it "expects to move one of its in-orbit spare satellites into the network constellation to permanently replace the lost satellite."

A NASA spokesperson said the agency will need weeks to study the crash before it could render a threat assessment on the new debris field. However, NASA told the AP that it poses little risk to the International Space Station and its three-member crew, who are in a much lower orbit.

It looks like someone seriously dropped the ball on this one.

Mark Shepherd Jr., Former CEO of Texas Instruments (1923-2009)

The man who led Texas Instruments (TI) through one of its most productive eras has died. Mark Shepherd Jr., who worked at TI for 37 years, rising from an assistant chief engineer to chief executive officer, passed away February 4 at his ranch in Quitman, Tex., at age 86. He was also a former member of the board of directors of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Shepherd helped to guide TI from a small firm catering to the needs of oil and gas companies into an electronics pioneer, producing semiconductor products for both businesses and consumers, according to an obituary in The New York Times. The paper stated: "As a hard-charging engineer, Mr. Shepherd was given the task of building Texas Instruments' first transistors and semiconductor products, which soon found their way into calculators, computers and toys. Later, as chief executive and chairman of the company, Mr. Shepherd fought to expand the semiconductor business overseas, while also fending off budding electronics giants in Asia."

Shepherd was born in Dallas, Tex., on 18 January 1923. A precocious youth, he reportedly built a vacuum tube at the age of 6. He graduated from high school at 14 and earned an undergraduate degree with honors from Southern Methodist University in 1942 and a master's degree from the University of Illinois in 1947, both in electrical engineering. Between his university days (and a short stint at General Electric), Shepherd served in the Navy during World War II as a lieutenant aboard the USS Tucson, specializing in radar and electronics systems.

The young Shepherd began his engineering career at the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation and Geophysical Service Inc. (GSI) before joining TI in 1951, according to an online entry from the Dallas-based firm. Two years later, he was named chief engineer of TI's new semiconductor design division.

Shepherd then rose through the company's ranks as the semiconductor revolution began to explode in importance. He served as a vice president and a general manager in the 1950s and as the chief operating officer and a member of the board of directors for TI in the 1960s. He was named president and chief executive of the electronics powerhouse in 1969.

During his tenure as CEO, Shepherd steered TI's global expansion, turning the company into one of the first to open semiconductor facilities abroad, including a factory in Japan, according to the Times.

In 1976, TI tapped Shepherd as its chairman, a post he held until his retirement in 1988.

A technology author contacted by the Times, Michael Malone, called Shepherd's years at the helm of the company "TI's golden age."

Shepherd served as a member of several corporate boards, as well as professional and civic organizations, such as the National Academy of Engineering, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

He was made a fellow of the IEEE in 1964; the next year he was named to the board of the institute.

Shepherd is survived by his wife of 63 years, Mary Alice, as well as daughters Marykay Shepherd and Debra Shepherd Robinson.

Moratorium on Definitions of Nanotechnology

One of the unfortunate side-effects of writing on the subject of nanotechnology is you come in contact with far too many definitions of what it is.

The latest one that simultaneously really annoyed me and gave me a chuckle was from some website called Micronanotronics. With a name like that I should have been forewarned.

But here is the classic bit: â''Nanotechnology is the science and art of constructing functional and sometimes powerful devices by manipulating single atoms until they are molecularly sized.â''

Oh, where to begin? I guess the part that really struck me was that nanotechnology could make a single atom into the size of a molecule. But reading it again, I think the part that may be overlooked for its sheer wackiness is that nanotechnology will make devices that are not only functional, but sometimes powerful. I have no idea what they mean, but thereâ''s a certain poetry to it.

Certain NGOs in the past have called for a moratorium on nanotechnology, but I would like to call for a moratorium on any new definitions of nanotechnology. For the sake of humanity, just cut and paste a definition from the NNI. Stop trying to think one up yourselfâ'¿itâ''s painful.

International Solid State Circuits Conference Gone Wild

The theme of this year's ISSCC is adaptive circuits. What are we adapting to? In the case of the semiconductor industry, we are adapting to a tanking industry. One recently laid-off Texas Instruments engineer--one of the 3600 victims of the carnage two weeks ago--told me he was given a couple of days to pack up his desk and go find himself. He was part of the wireless division in Dallas that TI had been planning to sell. But when there were no good buyers, they just laid everyone off.

But wireless is going to be about much more than just phones, and if the papers here are any indication, that research is building to critical mass. One of the most promising applications for the kind of work engineers once only did for cell phones is in medical implants and body area networks.

The ex-TI engineer pointed to a talk Sunday night by Ali Hajimiri, a high-speed and RF integrated circuits luminary at Caltech. Hajimiri enjoys long, moonlit walks on the beach, high-speed and RF, and low-frequency high-precision circuits. In 1993, he worked on BiCMOS chipset for GSM and cellular units. In 1997, he investigated low-phase-noise integrated oscillators for Lucent Technologies (that's Bell Labs to you). Turn-offs: mean people.

But on Sunday night, our protagonist from TI said Hajimiri was explaining biology to the audience. "DNA, RNA," our frustrated engineer said, "I didn't know what I was doing there."

Wireless transmission and wireless power are adapting to burgeoning medical applications: eye implants like the artificial retina at December's International Electron Devices Meeting; brain implants, and little implanted reservoirs that keep the blood evenly doped with drugs such as insulin. One acronym you can expect to hear a lot more of is MICS -- the medical implants communications standard.

The MICS band operates at 402-405 MHz. So there have been a lot of papers about how to transmit at that wavelength from a tiny, featherweight chip. Jeremy Holleman at the University of Washington created a 500-microwatt neural tag for our favorite cyborg moth with an analog front end frequency multiplying transmitter: a low noise amplifier core built on an op-amp core.

He multiplied an initial 45Hz frequency by a series of dense circuit diagrams that I didn't understand, and before I could drift off into sweet oblivion, the nine-fold multiplier had worked its magic. The interesting thing about this is that Holleman's transmitter can also operate in the 433 MHz ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band. That's good for the moth--ok, maybe less for the moth than for the moth researchers--and good for all the poor little medical rats who run around with giant cables extending out of their craniums. Hopefully that grisly tether can be replaced before too long with a chip that lets them run around unimpeded. You know, except for the chip digging into their brain.

But back to our protagonist from Texas Instruments: he says that after a couple of days at ISSCC, he's looking at getting into biomedical applications. It's clear from the research presented so far that for medical implants to become a reality--whether they are retinal implants, brain implants, or brain-machine interfaces--the first thing you need to be able to do with those things is communicate with them. The second is to power them indefinitely.

The best practice case for energy harvesting and tiny radios seems to be the DARPA moth. That project is a test bed for coming up with a lot of the next-generation power storage, energy scavenging, and wireless communication devices that will be crucial for next-generation biomedical applications.

Next post: energy harvesting and wireless power. Can it be done? Can it be done without burning your house down?

Geeks Are All Over the Entertainment Pages This Week


When I open my local newspapers (the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News) to the arts and leisure pages in the morning, itâ''s all about starting my day off slowly, a little light reading with those first few sips of coffee. Itâ''s not where Iâ''m looking for news about the engineers that I usually write about.

This week, though, geeks are dominating the entertainment pages. For days, Silicon Valley has been buzzing with the news that Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer and avid Segway polo player, will be competing in the next round of reality TV show â''Dancing With the Stars,â'' premiering 9 March. The biggest question on the minds of the technoratiâ''will he be making the moves with his feet, or with a Segway?Stevewozniak.jpg

And, of course, the countdown to the Oscars is underway. This weekend, the Academy handed out its first statue for 2008, to Pixarâ''s Ed Catmull, for his lifetime of technical contributions to the industry. This was Catmullâ''s second Oscar statue; I was at the awards ceremony when he got his first, and actually got to hold it. It was surprisingly heavy. At this yearâ''s Science and Technical Awards, actress Jessica Beal also handed a special Medal of Commendation to Mark Kimball, an IEEE member who started his career as a system engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before crossing over to the movie industry.

Photo top left: The winners of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Awards, handed out at a formal dinner on 7 February. Credit: Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Photo center right: Uber-geek Steve Wozniak. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congressional Stimulus Differences Bring Reduced Spending for Tech

The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote tomorrow on an economic stimulus act worth about US $827 billion.

With compromise votes pledged from three Republican senators, the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan is expected to pass and be sent to a joint Senate-House committee to iron out differences between the competing congressional versions of the measure. The version the House of Representatives passed calls for a package valued at $819 billion.

The differences in the lawmakers' plans include spending designed to stimulate activity in many economic sectors, and one of these is technology, of course.

An article from CNN over the weekend lays out where the compromise Senate plan pulls back on potential funding the House version would have invested in technology-related projects.

Here's what would now be partially cut:

  • $3.5 billion for energy-efficient federal buildings (original bill $7 billion)

  • $300 million from federal fleet of hybrid vehicles (original bill $600 million)

  • $200 million from Environmental Protection Agency Superfund (original bill $800 million)

  • $100 million from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (original bill $427 million)

  • $100 million from law enforcement wireless (original bill $200 million)

And here's some of what would be cut completely:

  • $2 billion for broadband infrastructure

  • $2 billion for Health Information Technology Grants

  • $1 billion for Energy Loan Guarantees

  • $200 million for National Science Foundation

  • $100 million for science

  • $100 million for National Institute of Standards and Technology

  • $100 million for distance learning

  • $100 million for NASA and aeronautics

Obviously, some of these are cutbacks in spending that are real increases in existing programs, and some eliminated funding may be restored in committee negotiations. Still, it sounds like the tech sector may have not done all it could to lobby legislators in Washington for stimulus investments in vital infrastructure areas.

There's Nanotech and Then There's Nanotech

I was struck by a comment to a recent blog entry that really had me scratching my head.

The argument was that nanotechnology was at its early stages. No disagreement there from me. Well, except maybe one.

Engineering materials at the nanoscale to create novel properties is at its early stages, but nanobots coursing through our bloodstream to fight diseases isn't even a twinkle in the eye, so to speak.

I donâ''t want to ascribe this sentiment to the recent commenter, but there seems to be a general impression that the more radical concepts of molecular nanotechnology will somehow evolve in logical progression from the work currently being done in nanomaterials. We're on the brink, whatever that means.

To use the light bulb analogy, itâ''s a bit like expecting todayâ''s computers to come out of improving the filaments of the light bulb rather than just imagining a future when thereâ''s an electric light in every room in the house.

In order for table-top factories and nanobots curing us of smoke inhalation to be realized, we will need to look at molecular nanotechnology as an independent avenue for research, with quite distinct obstacles and aims.

Senator: U.S. Stimulus Package Should Include Bigger Broadband Tax Credit

As debate over the provisions of a nearly trillion-dollar U.S. economic stimulus plan continues in Washington, one senator has called for an amendment to encourage spending on broadband service in areas of the country currently without service.

As reported today, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, will offer a measure to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to largely rural portions of the United States as a jobs incentive within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. Rockefeller's amendment would raise an earlier proposed tax credit to 30 percent, up from 10 percent.

AT&T and Verizon are the most likely to gain from this tax credit approach, analysts told Reuters. Smaller telecom companies have been promoting an alternative proposal to offer grants to communications firms, in which broadband providers would receive up to US $9 billion to extend their reach into remote locales.

Internet service providers "have pretty much covered every place they're going to cover," where they can make money, Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation told Reuters. "I don't see how putting broadband into rural America is a waste."

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that about 60 percent of the funds would be spent from 2009 through 2011, although independent analysts Reuters spoke with expected the incentives would take longer to take effect.

Is the Cat Out of the Bag in Nanotech?

With the environmental, health and safety issues surrounding nanotech being turned up daily until now it is reaching a deafening din, there seems to be an accepted wisdom that somehow the cat is already out of the bag in nanotech with 500 consumer products out on the market that are enabled by nanotechnology. I think this number should represent a cause for alarm but not in the way many think.

First, a list of 1000 consumer products that might use some form of nanotechnology wouldn't impress me. I can walk down one aisle of any grocery store and count 1000 products that don't.

And secondly, I can't work up any greater sense of alarm for nanomaterials being used in my tennis balls than I can for all the other toxic materials used in other everyday products I purchase and use.

In the still inconclusive toxicological research around certain nanomaterials, the exposure takes the form of these materials being ingested (in enormous amounts) in their free-floating form, not integrated into another materials matrix. In other words, fish get fed carbon nanotubes in their pure form, but no one has placed a carbon nanotube-enabled tennis racquet in an aquarium to observe the results.

You can rest assured that the guys in the labs at the largest chemical companies are pretty aware of how poisonous the materials they work with are, but what they are concerned with is whether the final products they make with these chemicals are poisonous.

The cat is not out of the bag with nanotech, and all the wanna-be regulators who argue otherwise should re-focus their concerns towards whether nanotech is ever going to have a greater commercial and economic impact than tennis balls and racquets for their own benefit and possibly ours.

Obama's Remarks Today to the U.S. Department of Energy

Transcript of speech on the role of energy policy in the economic recovery of the United States delivered today at the U.S. Department of Energy by President Barack Obama:

Thank you, Secretary Chu, for bringing your experience and expertise to this new role. And thank you all so much for your service each and every day here at the Department. Your mission is so important and will only grow as we seek to transform the ways we produce and use energy for the sake of our environment, our security â'' and our economy.

As we are meeting, in the halls of Congress just down the street from here, thereâ''s a debate going on about the plan Iâ''ve proposed, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.

This isnâ''t some abstract debate. Last week, we learned that many of Americaâ''s largest corporations are planning to layoff tens off tens of thousands of workers. Today we learned that last week, the number of new unemployment claims jumped to 626,000. And tomorrow, weâ''re expecting another dismal jobs report on top of the 2.6 million jobs we lost last year.

Now, I believe that legislation of such magnitude deserves the scrutiny thatâ''s it received over the last month. But these numbers that weâ''re seeing are sending an unmistakable message â'' and so are the American people. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now. Because we know that if we donâ''t act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse. Crisis could turn into catastrophe for families and businesses across our country.

I refuse to let that happen. We canâ''t delay and we canâ''t go back to the same worn ideas that led us here in the first place. In the last few days, weâ''ve seen proposals arise from some in Congress that you may not have read, but would be very familiar to you. Theyâ''re rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve our problems. That half-measures and tinkering are somehow enough. That we can afford to ignore our most fundamental economic challenges â'' the crushing cost of health care, the inadequate state of so many schools, and our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

Let me be perfectly clear: those ideas have been tested, and they have failed. They have taken us from surpluses to an annual deficit of over a trillion dollars, and they have brought our economy to a halt. And thatâ''s precisely what the election we just had was all about. The American people have rendered their judgment. Now is the time to move forward, not back. Now is the time for action.

Just as past generations of Americans have done in trying times, we can and must turn this moment of challenge into one of opportunity. The plan Iâ''ve proposed has at its core a simple idea: letâ''s put Americans to work doing the work that America needs done.

This plan will save or create over three million jobs â'' almost all of them in the private sector.

This plan will put people to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges; our dangerous deficient dams and levees.

This plan will put people to work modernizing our health care system, not only saving us billions of dollars, but countless lives.

This plan will put people to work renovating more than 10,000 schools, giving millions of children the chance to learn in 21st century classrooms, libraries, and labs â'' and to all the scientists in the room today, you know what that means for Americaâ''s future.

This plan will provide sensible tax relief for the struggling middle-class, unemployment insurance and continued health care coverage for those whoâ''ve lost their jobs, and it will help prevent our states and local communities from laying off firefighters, teachers, and police.

Finally, this plan will begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time.

After decades of dragging our feet, this plan will finally spark the creation of a clean energy industry that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next few years, manufacturing wind turbines and solar cells for example, and millions more after that. These jobs and these investments will double our capacity to generate renewable energy over the next few years.

Weâ''ll fund a better, smarter electricity grid and train workers to build it â'' a grid that will help us ship wind and solar power from one end of this country to another. Think about it. The grid that powers the tools of modern life â'' computers, appliances, even blackberries - looks largely the same as it did half a century ago. Just these first steps toward modernizing the way we distribute electricity could reduce consumption by 2 to 4 percent.

Weâ''ll also lead a revolution in energy efficiency, modernizing more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improving the efficiency of more than 2 million American homes. This will not only create jobs, it will cut the federal energy bill by a third and save taxpayers $2 billion each year and save Americans billions of dollars more on their utility bills.

In fact, as part of this effort, today I've signed a presidential memorandum requesting that the Department of Energy set new efficiency standards for common household appliances. This will save consumers money. This will spur innovation. And this will conserve tremendous amounts energy. Weâ''ll save through these simple steps over the next thirty years the amount of energy produced over a two-year period by all the coal-fired power plants in America.

And through investments in our mass transit systems to boost capacity, in our roads to reduce congestion, and in technologies that will accelerate the development of innovations like plug-in hybrid vehicles, weâ''ll be making a significant down payment on a cleaner and more independent energy future.

Now, I read the other day that the critics of this plan ridiculed our notion that we should use part of the money to modernize the entire fleet of federal vehicles to take advantage of state of the art fuel-efficiency. They call it pork. You know the truth. It will not only save the government significant money over time, it will not only create jobs manufacturing those vehicles, it will set a standard for private industry to match. And so when you hear these attacks deriding something of such obvious importance as this, you have to ask yourself â'' is it any wonder we havenâ''t had a real energy policy in this country?

For the last few years, Iâ''ve talked about these issues with Americans from one end of this country to another. Washington may not be ready to get serious about energy independence, but I am. And so are you. And so are the American people.

Inaction is not an option that is acceptable to me and itâ''s certainly not acceptable to the American people â'' not on energy, not on the economy, and not at this critical moment.

So I call on the members of Congress â'' Democrats and Republicans â'' to rise to this moment. No plan is perfect, and there have been constructive changes made to this one over the last month. There may be more today. But the scale and scope of this plan is right. Itâ''s what America needs right now, and we need to move forward today. I thank you all for being here, and Iâ''m eager to work with Secretary Chu and all of you as we stand up to meet the challenges of this new century.

Thank you very much.


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