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Getting ready for the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show

logo.gifI spent several hours today getting ready for the Consumer Electronics Show by going through hundreds of emailed press releases, invitations, and announcements. Iâ''m not quite done, but I donâ''t have to finish to make a few predictions.

â''TVs will go from thin to anorexic, as TV manufacturers will tout the flatness of their new models. Many of these â''thinâ'' models, however, will have unsightly bulges in back, that wonâ''t be counted in the measurements. And the thinnest will either be prototypes or will be so expensive they may as well be prototypes.

â''Bill Gates will give his keynote wandering around a stage set representing a living room, kitchen, and home office, predicting the future. We will have seen this future before, but it wonâ''t be any closer to reality than it was five years ago.

â''There will be no free lunch. The box lunches provided for the media will be eaten by hungry bloggers while print journalists, rushing from appointment to appointment, starve. (Uh oh, is this a metaphor for 2008?)

â''One weird product will find itself into every story about the show, print or online. It may never actually get into consumer hands, but itâ''ll get a lot of buzz. Contenders this year: Spykee, the wifi spy robot; Sonic Impact, an under-the-bed speaker system that doubles as a vibrating massager; and the Iona Cube, a radio that changes stations depending on which side is up.

Check back here starting Jan. 6th for news from CES.

Sad Holiday for Space Station Astronaut

The upcoming holidays will be bittersweet for orbiting astronaut Daniel Tani. Yesterday, Tani's mother was killed in a collision between the vehicle she was driving and a moving train in Tani's hometown of Lombard, Ill., according to a report from the Associated Press. Tani was supposed to have returned to Earth this week with the crew of shuttle mission STS-122, in time to celebrate the holidays with his family, but faulty sensors in the external fuel tank caused NASA to postpone the flight until next month (see our prior entry "Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks").

Rose Tani, 90, of Lombard, near Chicago, died from injuries suffered after she attempted to pass a school bus that had stopped at a railroad crossing to wait for the train to pass. A local ABC News affiliate, WLS-TV, reported that the crossing gates had apparently not closed in time to prevent the accident. Tani was informed by a flight surgeon at NASA's mission control shortly after it received the news.

"We'll do everything we can to help him through a very difficult timeframe," said Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The 46-year-old Tani is nearing the end of his second mission in space. He previously flew aboard mission STS-108, in the Endeavour shuttle, to the International Space Station (ISS) in December of 2001, where he performed his first spacewalk. As a member of STS-120 and ISS Expeditions 15 and 16, Tani has performed numerous spacewalks to help with construction work on the orbiting science platform. He has been in space since 23 October of this year.

Tani is married to the former Jane Egan, of Cork, Ireland, and has two small children, ages 3 and 1. His father is also deceased.

"He is obviously pretty sad," the astronaut's brother, Richard Tani, said in Thursday's edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He was pretty close to her. We are all close to her. She was loved by everyone."

NASA said Tani's duties will be reassigned to his current crewmates, station commander Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

"Before anyone launches, they understand that unfortunate things could happen and that's unfortunately part of the difficulties, hardships and risks of space flight," NASA spokesman Jim Rostohar said in an article today in the Chicago Tribune.

Tani is believed to be the first American astronaut to lose a close family member while in space, NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier said.

Our condolences go out to the members of the Tani family on their loss, especially at this time.

Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch

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My refurbished Pulsar P2 "Astronaut" LED watch came in the mail today, an early Xmas gift to myself that I've been anticipating for more than ten years. That's about how long it's been since my dad gave me his old watch and I've been looking for someone to fix it ever since.

A recent fascination with the new crop of LED watches coming out of Japan led me to pull the old P2 out of the bottom drawer of my dresser a couple of weeks ago and renew my search for a repair person capable of replacing the battery. My first stop was a jeweler in downtown Minneapolis who had assured me over the phone that he could fix the watch no problem. You can guess how that turned out. Oh, they don't make batteries for that watch anymore. And there's corrosion inside that has probably rendered your watch useless.

Useless? You mean the watch that Roger Moore wore in his debut as James Bond in "Live and Let Die" can be disabled by the ravages of, ahem, time? I took the watch back from the repairman and told him rather snootily that I was sure I'd find the right batteries somewhere in the pipes of the Internets.

Indeed, I found a kit from the Small Battery Company in the U.K. that would let me use Energizer 357 batteries in place of the old Eveready 355s my dad's watch came with back when he bought in 1972. I was five years old then, and I clearly recall the sense of amazement I felt when he brought that watch home and flashed up the time in tiny glowing red lights. Pulsar was established as a brand by the venerable Hamilton Watch Company in 1972 ostensibly to market the first digital watch ever sold to the general public. It would be 35 years before I could call my dad on the phone and tell him that the LEDs were made of aluminum gallium arsenide and make a gallant effort to explain to him the wonders of compound semiconductor LED technology, which was why he paid more than $500 for it (the 18-kt gold version sold for $2100) lo those many years ago.

Unfortunately, the Small Battery Company only ships its precious wares to EU countries, so the kit--which is basically just some strips of rubber that help position the smaller 357 battery to fit the 355 slot in the watch--was out of my reach. I'd resigned myself, not unhappily, to the prospect of shelling out for one of those crazy new Japanese LED watches that display time in binary code when I somehow found my way to Retroleds, the site of a watch repairman and vintage LED watch merchant by the name of Ed Cantarella, who also happens to run LEDwatches.net. He assured me he could fix whatever needed fixing for a reasonable price. So I shipped the watch off to him a couple of weeks ago and within a day of his having received it, I got an email with the subject line "Say 'Hello'" as in Hello, World. Ed had my watch working on his bench. Somewhere in Michigan, an electrical engineer (once I saw the "Hello" subject line, I suspected Ed was an EE and he confirmed this), had brought a piece of my childhood back to life.

After a painless Paypal transaction, I received the watch today. It worked well enough, but the time was off by an hour. How, I wondered, do I change the time on this thing? After fruitlessly pressing the two indentations on the back of the watch where it reads "MIN" and "HR," I started fiddling with the band, hoping to unlock some secret 007 mechanism.

And I did. Inside the clasp is a small compartment that houses a "U"-shaped magnet. Touch the magnet to the MIN and HR indentations and, voila, the time changes. What better way to while away a lunch hour than unlocking the secrets to vintage electrotechnology and in the process opening a window on the wonder of childhood. Merry Christmas, Ed Cantarella, and thanks for the memories.

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Norad Santa-tracker meets Google Earth

image_about_santa.jpgNoradâ''the North American Aerospace Defense Commandâ''has been tracking Santa since 1955, when a Sears advertisement offering a talk-to-Santa hotline accidentally gave a the number of the Continental Air Defense Command, Noradâ''s predecessor. Today, the Norad web site explains, Norad follows Santaâ''s journey around the world using radar, infrared sensors on satellites that zero in on Rudolphâ''s nose, special â''Santa-Cams,â'' and fighter pilots in F-15 and F-16 jets. Norad used to make this information available via phone, now itâ''s on the web. Norad tracks Santa in six languages, German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese.

Itâ''s a great tool, Iâ''ve used it for the past few years; pointing out Santaâ''s imminent approach helps encourage excited children to get to bed early, so they can make sure theyâ''re asleep before Santa starts getting close. In previous years, the Santa tracker looked much like the live route maps on international airline flights, a map of the world overlaid with a simple path and icons.

This year, however, Norad Santa-tracker has been integrated with Google Earth, so it will likely be a lot flashier. I had yet to download Google Earth (I hadnâ''t realized the Mac version was available), but took Noradâ''s advice and did so today, so Iâ''ll be ready to track Santa on Christmas Eve. Thereâ''s also a widget to add to an iGoogle page.

Iâ''d love to tell you what I think of the latest version of Santa-tracker, but this is one application you canâ''t test ahead of time; Norad doesnâ''t start sleigh-hunting until 2 a.m. Mountain Time on Christmas Eve.

Norad does let you send a letter to Santa while youâ''re waiting. Santa replied to my email quickly, and confirmed that Iâ''m on the â''Niceâ'' list. He also said that fog is predicted for Christmas Eve, so Rudolph would likely be flying and that he just got a new sleigh with all the latest upgrades. Santa sounds like a classic early adopter.

Mars Satellite Spies What May Be Active Glacier

In a controversial conclusion, a scientist working for the European Space Agency (ESA) says that a formation on the surface of Mars is a relatively recent glacier.

The BBC Online features a report today stating that new images from the Mars Express spacecraft suggest the existence of a large active glacier near the Martian equator. Still unconfirmed, the prospective glacier may be a significant source of water on the surface of the arid Red Planet.

"If it was an image of Earth, I would say 'glacier' right away," Gerhard Neukum, chief scientist on the spacecraft's High Resolution Stereo Camera, told BBC News.

While glacial activity on the Martian surface has been spotted before, it has been regarded as the residue of ancient geophysical processes, occurring millions of years in the past. On Mars, scientists generally believe, surface ice cannot last for long before being sublimated into vapor in the thin atmosphere. Thus, some think that recent glaciers are the result of ice pushed up from beneath the surface of the planet. Neukum, who works at the Free University of Berlin, is one of these.

In the case of the prospective "young" glacier, he estimates that water moved up from underground in the last 10 000 to 100 000 years.

"We have not yet been able to see the spectral signature of water. But we will fly over it in the coming months and take measurements. On the glacial ridges we can see white tips, which can only be freshly exposed ice," Neukum told the BBC. "That means it is an active glacier now. This is unique, and there are probably more."

He speculated that the new discovery could be a breakthrough in the hunt for possible life on Mars. The potential glacier, which rests in the planet's Deuteronilus Mensae region, would very likely be a target for future exploration by robotic rovers if proven out. Should microbes exist deep underground on Mars, kept alive by liquid water, they may be able to reach the surface within the ice flow of such recent glaciers.

If so, these images from the Mars Explorer will have provided an invaluable clue as to where to seek them. That would be a fitting holiday present for the administrators of the European space program. The 25th of December will mark the four-year anniversary of their spacecraft's arrival at Earth's closest neighbor.

Microsoft doesn't have the only Santa chat-bot

Microsoft may have had problems with their chatty Santa getting into x-rated conversations and have had to cut off his Internet access, but there are plenty of other Santa chat-bots online, for kids who would rather IM Santa their wish lists rather than wait in that endless line at the mall.

I tested three. Santabot has nice wintry graphics and a simple interface. But Santabotâ''s kept asking me questions about music; I had a hard time getting him to get to the issue at hand, that is, what I want for Christmas. Finally, we got there. I asked for an iPod, Santabot gave me a hard time. â''Why would you want an iPod?â'' â''But why do you want one?â'' And then he redirected the conversation back to talking about what kinds of music I like. You'd think, with such an interest in music, that Santabot would know why I wanted an iPod. But I was willing to move on, and tried asking for a bicycle. Santabot thought it was odd that I wanted only one bicycle; he suggested they might be cheaper in quantity. Iâ''m not sending my kids to this Santa.

Next, I visited the Santabot offered by the Artificial Intelligence Foundation. This Santa got right to the point, that is, what did I want for Christmas? I asked for an iPod, and he said heâ''d add it to my list, which is what Santa is supposed to say. He also remembered me from visit to visit; when I went back later to show him to my kids and asked for something else, he pointed out that my list was getting a bit long. However, this site had an animated Santa head and text-to-speech conversion, both were horrid, the AI Foundation should have stuck to plain text chat.

The Santabot at CD Newswire is a bit of a smart alec. I asked for an iPod, Santa said â''Oh my goodness!â'' I tried for a bicycle, and this Santa replied, â''As if!â'' And then he wanted to know if I left the cookies for him or the cockroaches. When I mentioned that I always leave him a glass of brandy along with the cookies, he asked if Iâ''ve ever considered a career as an elf.

Iâ''m thinking that line at the mall suddenly doesnâ''t look so long.

Future of Nanoelectronics: 20-Hour Battery Life for your Laptop

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When people think of nanotechnology in electronics they like to imagine molecular electronics, but it may be the mundane that pushes nanotechnology further into the electronics industry.

Imagine a laptop battery that could last 20 hours rather than 2. That is what you call a unique selling point, and surely something that has long been sought by computer manufacturers.

Some of you might remember NEC letting it be known (back in 2001, then in 2003, and again in 2004--the picture above gives you an indication of how long ago this was) that they had a fuel-cell battery enabled by nanotechnology that would last for 40 hours, and it would hit the market by 2004. It was never released to the market, and is hardly mentioned now except for those who question, â''Whatever happened toâ'¿?â''

The latest entry into the fray of improving upon Li-Ion battery technology comes from Yi Cui, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford.

The beauty of this solution isâ'¿well, itâ''s not a fuel cell with all its incumbent limitations. Instead it simply replaces the lithium in the anode with silicon nanowiresâ'¿thatâ''s very simply.

Supposedly, current manufacturing techniques can easily accommodate this solution. That said, it is still just research, although Cui has announced the launching of a start-up to commercialize the technology.

Expect a lot more in the field of battery technology. Pretty safe bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Remembering PC Power Activist Glenn DeWeese

from the desk of Senior Editor Jean Kumagai:

Glenn DeWeese is dead. And the world is the worse for it.

I never met the man, never even knew he existed until I stumbled

across a story just now in The Oklahoman. But

to judge by his accomplishments, he was a man of both action and

compassion.

For the last four years, up until his sudden and untimely death this

weekend, DeWeese had led a nonprofit group in Tulsa called PC

Power, which refurbishes recent-model personal computers and

distributes them, free, to kids at risk.

According to the story, DeWeese, a retired police officer, had been

inspired to found PC Power while helping his grandson with a homework

assignment that involved an Internet search:

"Long after the simple search was finished, and the homework was

done, the assignment continued to bother DeWeese. He had a computer

and knew enough about computers to help his grandson. But what about

those families who couldn't afford a family computer? How did those

children do their homework assignment?"

Rather than just feel bad and then move on with his life, DeWeese

decided to start rebuilding computers, which were then distributed at

Christmas time with the help of the Tulsa Police Department.

According to the story, PC Power has announced that despite DeWeese's

absence, this year's distribution of 85 computers--the fifth such

drive--will go forward and the group's efforts will continue.

So did DeWeese really help those families in need? In the online

comments, a reader notes, rather dismissively, that "A PC without an

Internet connection is like trying to enter a library that has locked

its doors for the night." But another commenter responds: "maybe you

could turn on internet for a dozen of his kids...it is a step in the

right direction..."

That's the spirit. DeWeese did the hard thing: he backed up his good

intentions with good deeds. And in doing so, he showed us a way of

living.

Little-Known Fact #2876: Electrons look like Seth Rogen

Apparently mobilized by the success of Knocked Up, Phiar Corporation has released a promotional video that anthropomorphizes electrons as sweet-natured slackers on a "CMOS budget."

Replete with '70s font treatments and purposefully low production values, "A Day in the Life of an Electron" explains why metal-insulator-insulator-metal diodes are better for electron mobility than semiconductors.

An alternate explanation of Phiar's use of quantum tunneling can be found in October's issue of Spectrum Online.

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