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Thinking of Running for Political Office?

By Kieron Murphy

Becoming a public official isn't just the pre-ordained career path of those with law degrees. Serving the people is a responsibility available to all in a democracy. And scientists and engineers very often make outstanding representatives for those they live among.

Take the current mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, who is a trained electrical engineer. He is widely regarded by his constituents as one of the most popular public servants in recent memory, thanks to his problem-solving acumen.

So, in this jam-packed election year in the United States, featuring a race for every office from President to County Commissioner, from sea to shining sea, there are opportunities for you to consider the big jump into politics. Where do you start, though? Like anything else in life, you're going to need to learn from the masters.

That's why the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is inaugurating [pun intended] its first annual Campaign Education Workshop on 10 May in Washington, D.C. -- please see Campaign Workshop Offers Practical Advice to Scientists Interested in Political Office.

According to the AAAS announcement, this non-partisan meeting will focus on the practical considerations of running for office, as well as the specific ways that technologists can become more involved in political campaigns.

Sponsored by Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA), AAAS, and several other research societies such as the IEEE, it follows up on the success of an informal workshop held last July during the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows meeting.

"We had invited a number of our partner scientific societies to observe the event last year, and there was such enthusiasm that we thought we should be doing this for our members in general, not just fellows," said Cynthia Robinson, director of AAAS's S&T Policy Fellowships.

The May workshop will offer more detail and specifics on how to run a campaign, including how to hire a staff, how to create a budget, how to craft media messages, and how campaigns differ from the school board to the congressional level, Robinson noted.

Featured speakers include: Dean Levitan, of the political consulting firm MSHC partners; Kevan Chapman, communications director for Michigan congressman Vern Ehlers; and Joe Trippi of Trippi Associates, a veteran of several U.S. presidential campaigns, most recently the Democratic primary run of John Edwards.

If you're interested in learning more about this unique opportunity, please visit the SEA Campaign Education Workshop page on the Web.

Then get out there and try to make your community (and the world) a better place to live. After all, you've got the know-how to make a difference.

Kieron Murphy is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum. He lives in New York City.

Run for your lives, â¿¿Self assemblyâ¿¿ is coming!

godzilla_crowds1.jpg

Some hopeful research for treating spinal cord injury was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in which peptide amphiphile (PA) molecules self-assemble in vivo into supramolecular nanofibers that inhibit the formation of scar tissue at the injury and help the spinal cord fibers to regenerate.

John Kessler, M.D., and Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Northwestern and his team of researchers are quite encouraged by their successful research with mice and believe that it has the potential for treating human spinal cord injuries.

This news was picked up by a number of the nanotechnology blogs, but the blog over at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at the University of California Santa Barbara had an interesting take on it.

The CNS concerns itself with nanotechnology and its impact on society, and societyâ''s impact on nanotechnology. So, they are experts on this sort of thing. They noted how one of the articles covering the story from Stem Cell Research News opted to use the term â''building blockâ'' as opposed to â''self assemblyâ'' in describing the gel under discussion.

As I said, they are experts on this kind of thing, so I tend to believe them when they say this is significant. What is alarming is that the general public may have become so skeptical--or just plain fearful of everything--that they can be presented research that may help alleviate some of the most detrimental effects of spinal cord injury and they would turn away because of the term â''self assemblyâ''.

One has to really stretch oneâ''s imagination to figure out how â''self assemblyâ'' can be construed into such a monstrous concept that even it helps spinal cord injury victims walk again it should be avoided.

New York State Energy Plan: Credible or Wishful?

New York stateâ''s new governor David A. Paterson, who took office just weeks ago, replacing disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer, deserves great credit for moving fast to address the regionâ''s long-term energy needs. In a plan issued yesterday, April 10, Paterson re-established a state energy planning board, told the stateâ''s two largest power authorities to aggressively pursue conservation, and said Long Island would build some kind of large solar facility.

The major immediate news in Governor Patersonâ''s announcement was his decision to firmly oppose construction of a large liquefied natural gas terminal, Broadwater, in Long Island Sound. â''Shame on us if we cant develop a responsible energy policy without sacrificing one of our greatest natural and economic resources,â'' the governor said, referring to the stretch of water separating Long Island from southern Connecticut.

Broadwater has attracted sensible criticism from many city and regional opinion leaders, including The New York Times. But those leaders have not always coupled that opposition with realistic ideas about how to meet the regionâ''s long-term energy needs without aggravating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Paterson takes an important step in the right direction by re-establishing an energy planning board, which he said will consider other proposals for LNG terminals, among other things.

Possibilities for conservation may be limited in energy-efficient New York City, but on Long Island and upstate, where automobile use is heavy and population sprawled, much more will be achievable. Paterson said that the Long Island Power Authority is preparing a $1 billion, 10-year conservation plan, and that the New York Power authority has promised to double conservation spending to $1,.4 billion through 2015.

Paterson announced that LIPA will be issuing a request for proposal for a major solar facility on Long Island. It will be interesting to see what the RFP looks like. Central solar generation has not so far proved cost-effective, and where itâ''s been triedâ''cloudy Barvaria, for exampleâ''itâ''s been a boondoggle. But perhaps LIPA will come up with something that at least points the way to a brighter solar future, perhaps a decade or two down the road.

Nanotechnology and Solar Power

What is there not to like about solar energy? There is ample capacity, for example, in one day enough energy comes from the Sun to meet the planetâ''s energy needs for one year. Its lifetime is indefinite. There are little to no negative environmental impacts from using it. And, the technology obstacles are not insurmountable.

The thing not to like is cost, despite industry analysts predicting a boom for solar companiesâ'' bottom line. To give you a comparison to other energy sources electricity produced by solar (or photovoltaic) cells costs about $0.30 per kilowatt hour (kWh), while electricity from wind costs about $0.05 per kWh and from natural gas about $0.03 per kWh. Thatâ''s 10 times the cost to get electricity from solar cells than from natural gas.

But back in 2005 in a report written by George Crabtree and Nathan Lewis for the US Department of Energy, it is predicted that we can expect to see the price for generating electricity from solar cells drop to $0.02 per kWh inâ'¿wait for itâ'¿20â''25 years' time.

Over the last 30 years the price for photovoltaic electricity has decreased by a factor of 20 mainly due to incremental improvements to single-crystal silicon solar cells, and the 20-25 year timeframe that Crabtree and Lewis predicted is based on the idea that these incremental improvements to creating cheaper crystalline materials will eventually lead to a cheaper kWh price point.

The slow development predicted in this model could be accelerated dramatically to as early as 2015 if nanotechnology can deliver in improving photovoltaics.

This kind of leap in technology will require moving beyond first-generation solar cells (single-crystal silicon wafers) and second-generation solar cells (thin-film semiconductors), which while cheaper to produce lag significantly in their efficiency to first-generation technology.

Instead a third-generation solar cell will need to be developed that can exceed the 32% Shockley-Queisser Limit.

One of the nanotechnologies being experimented with to overcome this limit has been quantum dots.

One area of research with quantum dots is to use them for achieving photon multiplication, which involves making multiple electronâ''hole pairs for each incoming photon. This moves electrons from the valance band into the conduction band. Victor Klimov at Los Alamos National Laboratory has been able to use quantum dots to achieve up to seven electron-hole pairs per incoming photon, and Klimov claims that this could lead to solar cells with efficiencies of up to 40%.

Another area in which quantum dots could be used is by making so-called â''hot-carrierâ'' cells. Typically the extra energy supplied by a photon is lost as heat, but with â''hot carrierâ'' cells the extra energy from the photons result in higher-energy electrons which in turn leads to a higher voltage.

As appealing as these solutions are they are estimated to be still 10-15 years off from commercial use. While industry gurus may be touting â''green technologyâ'', which in turns leads to the general public expecting to be getting solar-powered electricity off the grid in the near future, the reality is that is still somewhat far off. It will require a huge commitment to developing these technologies, and despite recent national initiatives and subsidies in Germany, Spain and Japan in solar power there remains a huge gap between where we are now and when we can expect electricity that comes from the Sun.

That tangle of power cords under your desk may make you a winner

jimdennewills_desk1.jpgGearing up for Earth Day on April 22, Green Plug, the manufacturer of a universal charger, has issued a call for below-the-desk photos.

Green Plugâ''s product was one of the highlights of Demo 08, a showcase for emerging companies. The company has developed universal power connector that talks to products that contain its licensed technology. The products tell the connector what voltage they need and when theyâ''re done charging; it saves energy as well as eliminates heavy power â''bricksâ'', the kind that you may be kicking beneath your desk right now.

For its Earth Day contest, Green Plug wants pictures of what it calls the â''unsightly tangle of wires, black bricks, and wall wartsâ'' that eventually become, company CEO Frank Paniagua Jr. says, part of the 379 million discarded external power supplies that end up in U.S. landfills annually.

To enter, post your snapshot at http://greenplugcontest.typepad.com. The winner gets lunch with former Brady Bunch star Christopher Knight and his wife Adrianne Curry. Knight went on to a successful career in the computer industry, founding Eskape Labs to develop digital appliances, including video devices. He sold the company in 2000 and went back to a television career. Greenplug identifies him as a green advocate, whatever that is. The second place winner gets a $500 Wal-Mart gift certificate; the connection between Wal-Mart and Earth Day escapes me.

Photo by Jim Dennewill.

New Space Station Crew Heads Into Orbit

The next crew of the International Space Station (ISS) began its journey to the orbiting science outpost Tuesday aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from the steppe of Kazakhstan. Known as Expedition 17, the two cosmonauts who lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday afternoon will be joined by another team member in late May. On this flight, they were accompanied by So-yeon Yi, the first South Korean astronaut in space. The three are scheduled to rendezvous with the ISS on Thursday and greet their counterparts on the current expedition.

The first two Expedition 17 members are cosmonauts: the commander, Lt. Col. Sergei Alexandrovich Volkov, and a flight engineer, Oleg Dmitrievich Kononenko, of Russia's Central Specialized Design Bureau. They will spend the next six months on the ISS working on construction of the space station.

Yi is a guest of the Russian Federal Space Agency who will conduct science missions in orbit for the Korea Aerospace Research Institute. She will return to Earth with Expedition 16 crew members, Commander Peggy Whitson and Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko in their own docked Soyuz on April 19. Whitson and Malenchenko have been serving aboard the ISS since last October.

When the Expedition 17 Soyuz, or TMA-12, docks at the ISS, the cosmonauts will shake hands with their new crewmate, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, an American engineer who flew to the ISS aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in March and is scheduled to return home on the Discovery shuttle in June.

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff is scheduled to launch on the STS-124 flight of Discovery to join Expedition 17 in progress. He holds a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On Critical Energy Needs, New York Times Punts

You donâ''t have to be an anti-nuclear fanatic to wonder whether it would still make sense, were we starting from scratch, to build a large nuclear power plant complex just upriver from New York City, on the edge of a metropolitan area containing nearly 20 million people. So itâ''s not surprising that the New York State government has decided to challenge the renewal of licenses for the two Indian Point reactors, which expire in 2013 and 2015, and nor is it surprising that the New York Times has weighed in with an editorial saying the state deserves to have its day in court. â''This should not be misconstrued as an attack on nuclear power,â'' said the Times three months ago. â''Indeed, the state has an obligation to explain what it would do about the 2,000 megawatts of electricity that would be lost if the plant closed.â''

Indeed. And The Times might be construed as having the same public responsibility. But to judge from a more recent editorial, commenting on a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal to be built in Long Island Sound, one might wonder whether its editorial writers really grasp the implications of their own fine rhetoric. The Times opposed the Broadwater LNG terminal, which would provide the city with a billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, with this â''crucial caveatâ'': its critics, in opposing it, â''are committing themselves to bearing the cost of the cleaner, greener way. This means a serious commitment to energy conservation and serious investment in wind and solar power, and in retooling existing power plants for efficiency and cleanliness,â'' said the Times.

Thatâ''s a cop-out if there ever was one. Conservation is a very good thing, and some of the worldâ''s most imaginative green architecture is being done in New York City today. But remember, on a per capita basis, because of its population density, New York is already the most energy-efficient and energy conserving place in the whole country. There is only so far that conservation and improved energy efficiency can go.

The 2000 MW Indian Point complex, as it happens, has just been retooled for greater efficiencyâ''and wonâ''t be getting much better than it already is. As for the rest of the cityâ''s power, it comes from miscellaneous other fossil plants, and no matter how much you improve them, theyâ''re still going to be spewing undesirable amounts of greenhouse gas.

Solar being nowhere near ready for prime time, that leaves wind. So if you take the Broadwater terminal out of the equation or close down Indian Point, what then is the Times proposing? Does it want to fill Long Island Sound with 1000 very large wind turbines? Thatâ''s what it would take to make up for Indian Point, or to meet needs comparable to what Broadwater might supply.

Analysts See Solar Bubble, Predict Peak Solar in 2009

Though solar industry revenues are expected to keep growing nicely to 2012, supplies of photovoltaic modules will outpace demand starting next year, which could lead to sharp drops in PV prices and a shake-out among solar companies. Those are the main conclusions of a new study from Lux Research, a firm with offices in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Amsterdam that provides strategic advice and guidance on emerging technologies.

Lux predicts that manufacturers of solar equipment will see their revenues climb by more than 25 percent per annum in the next few years, with government subsidies in Japan, Germany, and Spain the main driving force. The combined capacity of new solar installations worldwide is expected to be about 3.5 gigawatts this yearâ''roughly the equivalent of building a single, standard-sized nuclear power plant, allowing for the intermittency of solar energy.

At present, PV growth rates are somewhat limited by shortages of crystalline silicon, the most widely used material in solar cells. Though polysilicon will remain in short supply until 2010, demand will shift somewhat to newer technologies, including thin-film photovoltaics, PV concentrators employing higher-grade PV material, and thermal concentrating systems.

Since 1995, 46 start-up solar companies have made initial public offerings, 35 of them in just the last three years. But the number of IPOs dropped in 2007 (perhaps signaling harder times ahead), and there was a 40 percent drop in the total amount of money raised, by comparison with 2006.

Almost every major solar projectâ''including the big photovoltaic roof that Google has installed at its Mountain View headquartersâ''depends on public subsidies. Lux believes that will continue to be the case at least until 2012, with richer subsidies in countries like India and China supplanting those being reduced or phased out in some of the more highly industrialized nations.

Nanotechnologies could help filter and capture greenhouse gas

While CO2 is often mentioned when discussing greenhouse gases and global warming, in terms of its ranking in the global warming potential (GWP) index it is no match for Tetrafluoromethane (CF4) in the area of the efficient absorption of infrared radiation.

The total amount of CF4 (a perfluorocarbon (PFC) gas) emissions is small when compared to CO2, but, beyond its more efficient absorption of infrared radiation, a CF4 molecule has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 50,000 years compared to the mere 50-200 years of a CO2 molecule.

In recent research highlighted in Nanowerk, Dr. Robert Holyst, Professor at the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Polish Academy of Sciences, together with Dr. Piotr Kowalczyk, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Applied Physics at RMIT University in Australia, have published findings in the March 7, 2008 online edition of Environmental Science & Technology in which single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) in computer simulation have exhibited promising ability to serves as efficient vessels for encapsulation of CF4 at room temperature.

Below is a movie from the Environmental Science & Technology website that shows a Monte Carlo simulations of CF4 adsorption in carbon nanotubes with pore sizes of 1.01 nm)

Download file

After the simulations, the next step will be actually experimenting with SWNTs to see how effective they are at capturing and storing CF4. With PFC gas emissions expected to rise by as much as 150% over the next 50 years despite the semiconductor industry moving away from their usage, this technology could have a dramatic effect at reducing their impact.

Could Blogging Be Hazardous to Your Health?

By Kieron Murphy

Over the weekend, an item in The New York Times (please see In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop) caused a bit of a buzz in the technosphere by pointing out that some of the best known tech bloggers around had experienced severe health problems recently. Out of three exemplars, two had died. Now, that's how to grab the attention of other bloggers.

In his column in the Times Sunday Technology section, Matt Richtel, who covers the Silicon Valley beat, wrote that the stress bloggers experience trying to keep up with the global news cycle may have had a deleterious impact on the lives of three prominent commentators in the tech sector: Russell Shaw, Marc Orchant, and Om Malik.

Shaw covered technology and politics prolifically from his own site, russellshaw.net, as well as freelancing for some of the top online outlets in both fields, including the Huffington Post and ZDNet. His site's motto reads: "Explaining technology to non-techs." Last month, Shaw died suddenly at age 60 of a heart attack in San Jose, Calif.

Orchant blogged about technology and productivity for an equal number of impressive online publications, such as BlogNation and ZDNet. He also passed away from a heart attack, in early December, at age 50 in Albuquerque, N.M. Obituaries relate the sad news of his illness and death here and here.

Then there is the case of Malik, perhaps the best known of the three for founding his GigaOM technology site. Only 41, he experienced cardiac problems in late December but managed to seek care at an emergency room in San Francisco. Malik, a columnist for publications such as Business 2.0 and Red Herring, survived and has posted a blog on his own site about his recovery (Off Topic: What the Past Three Months Have Taught Me).

So, other than being tech bloggers, what did these three gentlemen have in common?

Richtel of the Times thinks that it might be their lifestyle: sitting at a computer all day, eating poorly, and stressing about their status in the online world. He wrote:

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

When asked for a comment for Richtel's column, Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor of the TechCrunch blog site, said: "I havenâ''t died yet... At some point, Iâ''ll have a nervous breakdown and be admitted to the hospital, or something else will happen."

"This is not sustainable," he added.

Richtel notes that blogging may have an allure beyond just trying to break stories first (and the ever-present siren call of earning more money by gaining a reputation): the always-on connection. He wrote that this dynamic might have more of a "downside" than obsessive bloggers care to think about.

But does Richtel's column stand up to serious scrutiny? Are his three examples significant or just a statistical cluster?

An online colleague of Shaw and Orchant's thinks Richtel is off-base. After the Times piece appeared online over the weekend, Larry Dignan of ZDNet posted a response in his own Between the Lines blog on Sunday -- Anatomy of a â''Blogging will kill youâ'' story: Why I didnâ''t make the cut.

Dignan said he had been approached by Richtel for comment in the Times column but he was hesitant to cooperate. "When I talked to Matt the theme of the story was clear, but I had doubts about the premise," he wrote. Then he put Richtel in touch with other colleagues who knew Shaw and Orchant better and perhaps could offer more-informed insight into their lives.

Then he offered a contrasting point of view under his own byline:

And that brings me to my point with Matt. Yes, blogging is stressful. Yes, it can be insane. But is it any worse than being a corporate lawyer? How many of those folks dropped in the last six months? How about mortgage brokers? Hedge fund traders? FBI agents? Any job where you gnash your teeth together? We write for a living, yap all day and donâ''t have to wear suits. You could do worse than blogging.

That is a much clearer picture of the lives of bloggers, as well as everyone else, than we are likely to receive from reading more about the "blogged to death" meme in the echo chamber of the blogosphere this week.

So, thanks to Dignan for calling it like he sees it with a modicum of common sense.

Our belated condolences go out to the families and friends of Shaw and Orchant; and our heartfelt wishes for a speedy recovery go out to Malik.

As for bloggers everywhere, we can only suggest that you take this opportunity to push away from the keyboard for a while and do something healthy for yourselves (which I think I will do now).

The Web will still be here tomorrow.

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