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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.

Regional Nuclear War Would Radically Reduce Ozone

Back in the 1980s, when concern about a possible nuclear winter was at its height, the conservative columnist William Rusher jokingly referred to the tendency of catastrophists like the late Carl Sagan to talk "lip smackingly" about the end of the world. Those were the days when concerns sparked by a new U.S.-Soviet arms race were at their height, and scientists were warning that an all-out nuclear war would produce so much soot, the world would be plunged into a multi-year winter making life for the survivors virtually unsustainable. Sagan was among the leading scientists drawing attention to this dire scenario.

Given the satisfaction Rusher took from mocking those who liked to roll up every conceivable disaster into one irresistible package, he'd probably enjoy the report that is being posted today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, â''Massive Global Ozone Loss Predicted Following Regional Nuclear Conflict.â'' The article postulates that a regional nuclear war involving India and Pakistan would kick so much soot up into the stratosphere, heating of ambient gases would accelerate the chemical reactions that break down ozone as high as 60 kilometers up. The result here on the surface of the earth: a thinning of ozone north and south of 20 degrees latitude--everywhere north of Mexico City, for example, or south of Rio--to levels characteristic of the Antarctic ozone hole that has caused such serious concern in recent decades.

Michael Mills, the atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is lead author of the PNAS paper, says the ozone thinning would lead to much higher rates of skin cancer and cataracts, and have drastic effects on plant ecology during the five to eight years it persisted.

For those able to contemplate catastrophe scenarios with cool objectivityâ''without smacking their lipsâ''a recent study estimating the chances of nuclear war will be of interest in this context. That risk analysis, described in the current issue of IEEE Spectrum, finds that the odds of nuclear war during the Cold War years might have been as high as 5 in 1000 per year. Similar odds might hold in situations like the India-Pakistan stand-off.

Out of Africa: wisdom of the Great Apes

I sometimes think I was drawn to Africa by a chimpanzee. I met my wife, Chizo Okon, in the Accra Zoo, in Ghana, where she served as the surrogate mother for an orphaned chimpanzee.

I once took a photo of another chimp, this one orphaned by hunters in Cameroon who killed his mother. With the help of an American doctor and an armed soldier from Cameroon's army, we rescued this chimp, which we found staked to a post, sweating in the beating sun.

The chimp was the victim of two old technologies: the rifle and the chain saw. Loggers in the Congo basin need food. The hunters find them bushmeat. Together, a cycle of rationale incentives -- timber fetches money the world over and loggers must eat -- conspire to doom the species of animals that share more DNA with humans than any other.

New technologies are part of the campaign to save Africa's chimpanzees from extinction. At a protected sanctuary deep in the jungles of Cameroon, near the mighty Sanaga River, Dr. Sheri Speede protects some 50 chimpanzees of various ages. Electrified fences keep out wild chimps that might harass her own. Security cameras record human intruders. Advanced medical techniques enable Dr. Speede to provide birth control to the female chimps, so they don't bear babies in captivity. And various technologies -- from boats to cars and even the Exxon oil pipeline that runs near the sanctuary -- help her to reduce the abuses against the chimpanzees who remain in the forests near her.

Honestly, I am not much of an animal person. I've lived my whole in cities, surrounded by modern technologies seemingly designed for my comfort. In an African jungle, I constantly protect myself against malaria. I drink only boiled water. I eat only cooked food or fresh fruit. The idea of handling wild animals is ridiculous.

On the morning of the day we rescued this chimnpanzee, I prodded and cajoled Dr. Speede to drive 100 miles to check out a report we'd received of a baby chimp for sale. We drove for hours, the three of us in a battered truck, navigating bad roads and managing our worsening moods. In the final leg, we were carried across a wide river on a small ferry owned by the timber company. On the other side of the river, we stumbled on an hunters camp. When the soldier drew his gun, the hunters put down their machetes and rifles, and I released the frightened chimp.

He clung to me. Dr. Speede, in recognition of how I pestered her to attempt a raid, named the Great Ape after me. She calls him Zachary.

When we returned before nightfall to the sanctuary, I held the chimpanzee in my arms, showing him off to Dr. Speede's astonished co-workers. Proud of myself, I stood in awe of this animal's intelligence and grace -- until the moment he urinated all over me.

*

As I write these words, I sit in the comfortable Mermaid Inn of Menlo Park, California. I am not far from my current assignment -- helping a merry band of Finns, Swedes and Pakistanis, experienced journalists all, gain an introduction to both Silicon Valley and how American journalism cover innovation. The third day of our journey together is coming to an end, and I listen on my Ipod to the late Momo Wandel -- an extraordinary Francophone singer from West Africa -- groan out the first song from the Last King of Scotland soundtrack. When I think of the technological innovations spawned by Silicon Valley -- the very computer I write with, my new Iphone, even the magical badge that permits me to open the door to our office -- I am awed by the power of ingenious people to steadily improve ordinary life.

Yet the chimp pictured in my arms, so well protected by Dr. Speede, is a reminder of the fragility of our technological systems. How easily can human tools upset the mysterious balance of our world.

I hope the innovators of tommorrow can somehow restore that balance, if not for me, an old man, than at least for the generations that come after me. Can the youth of today somehow break out of the peculiar trap, whereby our tools enhance and diminish our humanity at the very same time?

Here Comes Everybody's Umbrellas

According to a friend of mine at Penguin Press, thereâ''s seven paragraphs missing from Clay Shirkyâ''s new book, Here Comes Everybody.. She feels responsible and asked that I post it for her, to protect her anonymity and thus her job.

The missing material, about a page and a halfâ''s worth of text, belong on p.21, after the first full paragraph, but it could also go at the very beginning of chapter 3 or on page 104 right after the section head. (This seems to be how the text got dropped, in the course of it being moved around from one galley proof to the next.) Here then, with an apology from a nameless publishing employee, is the missing text:

Stand under the shelter for the crosstown bus at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, on Manhattanâ''s crowded upper east side, and youâ''ll notice people streaming out of the bus and flocking to the subway station, which, since it is an express stop, is invariably busy.

Despite the large number of people, the flow of people from bus to subway entrance, and thence down the stairs, through the turnstiles, and onto the platform proceeds without incident.

This is a standard feature of a city serviceâ''it accommodates large numbers of people with relative ease. (Indeed, this is almost a defining characteristic of an urban service, and the collection of, and synergies between, such services is the hallmark of a functioning urban environment.) To be sure, there are often profferers of free newspapers, and the occasional medicant, to navigate around, but these are fixtures that New Yorkers have long learned to accommodate.

Now stand there on a rainy day (this is why we have positioned ourselves under the shelter, instead of beside it) and youâ''ll notice three interesting things. First, thereâ''s a hitch in the flow of people. Second, the hitch is exactly at the threshold of the subway entrance. Third, the hitch is coincident with a pause, as people lower and fold up their umbrellas. And fourth, the people behind them get annoyed, because theyâ''re still out in the rain, and in one more step, they would be in from it.

This behavior, which we can call The Umbrella Effect, can be found at almost every major crosstown street that intersects an avenue under which a subway runs. Comparable behavior can even be found in other parts of New York, and even other cities, even though they donâ''t have the regularity and accountability of Manhattanâ''s midtown grid. There are two things to notice about The Umbrella Effect. Umbrellas impede the free flow of movement. By itself, thatâ''s not so surprising. What is surprising is that even though umbrellas are handheld devices, their principle social effect is upon locomotion. (Their principle personal effect is of course to keep people dry, but weâ''re primarily interested in umbrellas as social devices.)

The Umbrella Effect is particularly noticable in the afternoon. This is because umbrella users have typically shopped at the drugstore, or other store, during the day, and so have more bundles and packages with them. These bundles and packages donâ''t impede the flow from bus to subway during nonrainy days, but on rainy ones they do, because folding an umbrella requires one and a half hands, and so the pause is all the more noticable as it is longer in duration.

Whatâ''s particularly important about The Umbrella Effect is that people get annoyed not at the unfoldable umbrella, which usability guru Don Norman, in his book The Parapsychology of Everyday Devices, calls â''a perfect storm of cheap, disfunctional design,â'' nor do they get annoyed at subway entrances that are too narrow and lack canopies or other precipatory amenities, or at the urban architects who fail to include canopies in their drafts, or the politicians who donâ''t fund canopies. No, users get mad at their fellow bus passengers. Indeed, and this is the true Umbrella Effect: People get annoyed by the same behaviors that they themselves will exhibit just moments later. This has been true of people for thousands of years, across all cultures and all ages, but it was only after buses, subways, and cheap umbrellas all existed in the same time and place as ubiquitious social networks that it was noticable enough to be given its own name.

NPR Learns the "Nano Radio" is not about the Radio

In an interview on National Public Radio, Professor John Rogers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign does a yeomanâ''s job in trying to get his interviewer away from the idea that his work with nanotubes is about the â''nano radioâ'' that made headlines at the beginning of the year and instead gently nudges him to the idea that the nanotube-based transistor used for the creation of the so-called â''nano radioâ'' is in fact a demonstration of the potential of CNTs in electronics.

Rogers manages to hit the interviewer's â''Jargon Alertâ'' when he indicates one of the most attractive qualities of CNTs in electronics are their â''charged-carrier mobilityâ'' (which is explained to the interviewer as: How fast they can switch on and off).

Indeed, it has long been understood that CNTs outperform silicon by a factor of 10 in this area.

But what has also long been the problem is growing the nanotubes into some kind of ordered array rather than a â''ratâ''s nestâ''. According to Rogers, his team has managed to grow the tubes in a configuration in a way that they can be handed off to engineers. In other words, moved it into the hands of people who can make a commercial product.

Rogersâ'' team discovered somewhat serendipitously that by growing the CNTs on a quartz substrate they aligned themselves. Rogers concedes in the interview that more work has to be done. In the next two years, they will be trying to increase the density of the tubes on the substrate and decrease the level of electronic heterogeneity of the tubes.

But what is particularly fascinating about the interview is Rogers laying out a roadmap for nanotube applications in electronics.

According to Rogers, because RF analog device depend so highly on high switching speeds that the high intrinsic mobility of the CNTs can have a dramatic impact. Also, RF analog electronics for communication devices donâ''t involve extremely high levels of integration as measured by the number of devices per circuit. You can make a commercially competitive circuit that has 100 transistors, whereas with digital logic you need 100 million transistors to make something that is competitive.

So, thereâ''s the plan for CNTs in electronics: first RF analog communication devices, then digital logic.

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Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch

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