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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.

Mainstream Environmentalists Talking About Nanotechnology & Food

In some ways this is one of my worst fears realized, some thinly informed environmentalist getting hold of one of the more extremist anti-nanotechnology manifestos and spreading it on the mainstream press.

I am not sure if one could call The Huffington Post the mainstream press, but I think it may be worse. The mainstream press seems incapable of determining what is actually news worthy nowadays, so it has increasingly turned to blogs to tell them what the news is. And now they have been told that maybe this stuff about nanotechnology in your food is a big story.

What constitutes the one and only source for the bloggerâ''s fears? None other than the Friends of the Earthâ''s â''Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agricultureâ'' report, if I may be so kind to call this kind of pseudo research a â''reportâ''.

The article even comes with the priceless photo used on the cover of the report of some faceless scientist with syringe about to shoot some chemicals into a piece of fruit. Propaganda is always so appealing.

I know it is so much more satisfying to read about how big, bad industry is using science to inject our food with poison, but in the name of open-minded inquiry that environmentalists like to give lip service to when they whisper their rationalizations to themselves maybe they could read and watch more reasoned discussions on the subject from here and here.

Give Us Ten Minutes and Will Give You the Nano World

Anyone who has lived in New York City and tuned into the local AM radio news has probably heard the 1010 WINSâ'' slogan, â''Give us 10 minutes and will give you the world.â''

Since I am an ex-New York resident, that phrase occurred to me as I watched Andrew Maynardâ''s distillation of years of nanotech presentations into one 10-minute-long video. Only in this case, you might say he is giving us the â''nano worldâ''.

The video probably does a better job of sorting out the benefits and risks of nanotech than the ponderous grandstanding of last yearâ''s PBS special â''Power of Small: Nanotechnologyâ''.

I am not damning with faint praise here, although at the beginning I was a bit worried with another nanotechnology definition. His illustrative analogies are strong and clarifying, and he comes to the crux of many issues surrounding nanotech that I think will be helpful for many in getting a better understanding of nanotechnology.

However, it is in the direction that we must go when we are that crossroads moment that left me a bit wanting. Maynard comes to the conclusion that nanotechnology has the potential for accomplishing many beneficial results for man: clean drinking water, better medicine to combat disease, renewable energy, etc. But he admonishes, â''We need to get it right.â''

Well, I am sure everyone agrees that it is better to get it right, then, say, get it wrong. But how are we supposed to know if we are getting it right?

I understand that the video is just a â''primerâ'', but perhaps in 30 seconds he could add some suggestion(s) on how to get it right without ensuring that nanotechnology's development is stopped dead in its tracks.

There Will be an Obama CTO

During Barack Obamaâ''s candidacy, his understanding of and commitment to technology attracted many technology professionals. Groups like Tech for Obama rallied around him, emphasizing that his comfort with his Mac laptop and his attachment to his Blackberry would be assets to a president, and that his knowledge of technology's importance in addressing the world's problems would help make him a strong leader. Obama made these supporters even happier when he promised to appoint the first U.S. CTO, a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the country to focus on technical and science issues, much like a corporate CTO.

Obama described the CTO as someone who will "ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

Now that he is in office, proponents of this idea are chomping at the bit to find out exactly when the CTO will be announced, who it will be, and what specific responsibilities that person will have. In talking with White House spokespeople yesterday, IEEE Spectrum confirmed that the plan as outlined during the campaign has not changed and will be carried out.

Many names have been mentioned as possibly on the short list for the position, representing top technologists from coast to coast, from Google's Eric Schmidt to Washington D.C. CTO Vivek Kundra. But these are only rumors; it could be days, weeks or months before Obama officially announces his choice. But the United States will, in this administration, get its first CTO.

â''Sarah Granger

Google, NASA Blow Money on Singularity University

You've gotta love the sheer chuzpah of it. In the middle what may well turn out to be the worst economic crisis the world has ever faced comes word that Google and NASA are planning to bankroll and house Ray Kurzweil's Singularity University at NASA's Ames Research Center, not far from the Googleplex. Peter Diamandis, vice-chancellor of Kurzweil's Clown College and current CEO of the X-Prize was quoted by the Financial Times as saying, "We are anchoring the university in what is the lab today, with an understanding of what's in the realm of possibility in the future. The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea."

We're right with you, Peter, at least the crazy part, as much of the coverage in our special report on the Singularity, Rapture of the Geeks, makes clear. As Diamandis says, anything is in the realm of possibility in the future. I might give birth to a litter of kittens when I'm 80. The sun might explode tomorrow. Rod Blagojevich might get a decent hair cut. And Ray Kurzweil might help usher in a beneficent Singularity, one where the machines that are smarter than we can ever even conceive of treat us, as Vernor Vinge once told me, like pets. And that's the good scenario: The machines turn the tables and go all Tamagotchi on us.

Hey, why not? We're already throwing what will wind up being trillions of dollars at an economic mess in part facilitated by financial risk algorithms, the crazy uncles of our future Machine Overlords. What's a few more million dollars, plus a few more good human minds sucked into the thrall of Mr. Kurzweil and his obsessive quest to deny Death its due? But while they're at it, I'm wondering if Messrs. Page and Diamandis might throw me some cash, too. I've got this really cool idea about how we can harness the energy of a few well-engineered Bacon Explosions.

Nanotech Labeling in Canada Moves Ahead

Nanotechnology watchdogs have been clamoring for â''nanotechâ'' labeling of any product that contains nanomaterials for years now, and Canada has fulfilled their wish.

Based on the labeling logic of Canada, itâ''s a little curious that any product with nylon in it doesnâ''t say, â''Sulfuric acid helped make thisâ'' or when you buy your next laptop â''Hereâ''s a list of all the poisonous materials used to make your computer.â''

But I guess the ship has sailed on those materials, or at least the companies that make them have been in profitability long enough to pay for the kind of lobbying that would squelch that kind of thing.

What the field of nanotech is left with is a few struggling companies and a whole lot of government-funded research that possesses few avenues for reaching commercialization. The only thing resembling an industry in the whole mess is the bureaucracy that is just biting at the bit to start making rules and regulations.

One could argue that those concerned about the toxicity of nanomaterials whether integrated into other materials, or free floating, may be jumping the gun somewhat in promoting the idea of the dangers of nanotech when the research remains far from conclusive.

But not me, I say go ahead and jump to any conclusion you like.

However, if your aim is to be at the head of some government regulatory body that oversees nanotech you may want to let nanotech actually get into a few commercial products (for breathtaking lists of nanotechnology products see here or here) before you decide to torpedo the possibility of those nano-enabled products of ever existing. Just sayinâ''.

Trade Group: Slump in Chip Sector Accelerates

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) said today that the market for its member's products continued to slide downward at the end of 2008.

The trade group announced that sales of semiconductor products, such as microprocessors, plunged to US $17.4 billion in December from $20.9 billion in November, a drop of 16.6 percent. Moreover, the December 2008 number declined by 22 percent from sales results in December 2007, of $22.3 billion, the SIA reported in a prepared statement.

Chip sales for all of 2008 came in at $248.6 billion compared with $255.6 billion in 2007, a decrease of 2.8 percent overall.

The head of the industry organization blamed the slump on the global recession.

"Weakening demand for the major drivers of semiconductor sales -- including automotive products, personal computers, cell phones, and corporate information technology products â''- resulted in a sharp drop in industry sales that affected nearly all product lines," said SIA President George Scalise.

He noted that sales of electronic products held up "reasonably well" over the first nine months of 2008 but fell sharply as turmoil in the global financial industry unfolded.

Scalise said that the steepest revenue declines were in the memory sector "where price pressure more than offset significant growth in total bit shipments."

"The industry is currently facing an unprecedented period of uncertainty," Scalise concluded. "A resumption of sales growth will depend in part on the effectiveness of various measures now under consideration by the Federal government to restore consumer confidence, improve liquidity, and stimulate economic growth."

The Downside of Electronic Medical Records


Part of President Barack Obamaâ''s plan to improve the U.S. health care system is to move every doctorâ''s office and hospital to electronic medical records. Most of the time, I think that will be a very good thing. This week, not so much. Because not even a state-of-the-art specialized highly secure record keeping system works all the time.

I live in Silicon Valley, and get my health care through a very large and modern group medical practice. It seems like weâ''ve had electronic medical records forever, though, thinking back, I have vague memories of the computers coming in, the conversion, and a period of extra-long office visits as the doctors struggled to input their orders correctly. Thereâ''s lots to like about electronic medical records; prescriptions are sent directly to pharmacies, so instead of dropping off a written prescription and coming back later to pick it up I only have to make one trip. I can make appointments online. I can look up test results and check when Iâ''m due for my next mammogram online. And, at least for my youngest child, I can print out a vaccination record myself whenever I need it instead of calling the office and asking for a printout (and sometimes being charged for the service).

Not that there arenâ''t some things about the electronic medical system that bug me. That prescription transmittal? There appears to be no way of telling the system not to send a prescription to the pharmacy whenever the doctor updates it, so when I have an annual checkup I can either choose not to update my allergy prescriptions (which means a phone call to the doctor a few months later when I need the medication), or go for the update and end up buying a new supply of allergy medication, whether I need it or not. And Iâ''m currently shut out of two of my three childrenâ''s medical records; once a kid turns 13, their parent is not allowed to access an electronic medical record. However, the kid himself isnâ''t allowed in until heâ''s 18. A catch-22 that means Iâ''m back to making appointments, asking for vaccination records, and checking test results over the phone or in person.

But, in general, Iâ''ve been happy with electronic medical records. This week, however, the system went down. (A computer virus, a staff member told me.) And it wasnâ''t pretty.

On Tuesday, I went in with one sick kid, and was in for a long wait. When we finally got in to see the doctor, the reason for the wait was clear; the doctors had no charts, so had to at least review a basic medical history with the patients. Ordering a test took foreverâ''first, finding or creating a form, then, finding someone who remembered the code for the test, since there was no place to look it up.

The next day, I took a second sick kid to the lab for a blood test. The doctor had written out a paper order for the test, and I checked it carefully to make sure it was right and legible before handing it over to the folks at the lab. The lab technician read the paperwork and, by hand, copied the information, or so I thought, on labels for the tubes of blood (these labels are normally printed out automatically).

The next day, the electronic medical system was up and running again, so the good news was that the doctor could view the test results. The bad news was that it turned out the lab had run the wrong test and my daughter was in for a second round of blood drawing. She wasnâ''t pleased.

So yes, letâ''s move to electronic medical records, because, for the most part, they do make the process more efficient. But letâ''s not think that we can rely on them completely, throw out the paper, and forget how to do it the old-fashioned way.

Photo by J.Reed

Nano Ethics Goes to Washington

I have already expressed my resistance to the idea of nano ethics and my opinion really hasnâ''t wavered much despite some prior skeptics allowing for at least the consideration of the subject.

I am heartened, however, that others remain unbowed in their skepticism.

Personally, I still just canâ''t get passed the idea that part of government funding for nanotech is going to be spent on Think Tank studies on nanotechnology ethics. I just canâ''t get my head around it.

I have not read the recently released report, Nanotechnology: The Social and Ethical Issues, from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in its entirety, but the bits I have read just leaves me asking, â''Couldnâ''t you just replace the term â''nanotechnologyâ'' with â''semiconductorsâ''?â''

Why is it that nanotechnology always gets burdened with this stuff. Does the word itself somehow appeal to these ethicists?

But the more perplexing question for me is why these people who dedicate themselves to the subject of ethics donâ''t realize that it is somewhat unethical to always come to the same conclusion that their work â''needsâ'' to be funded by the taxpayer dime?

It's sort of like Dick Cheney leading the vice-president search team for Republican nominee, George W. Bush, only to conclude that he would be the best vice-president.

I don't know maybe that's not a question of ethics, but just bad manners. In either case, it doesn't look good.


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