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The Agonies of an African Programmer

Last month during a brief stop in Nairobi, I tried to meet one of my oldest friends in Africa, Guido Sohne. The post-election riots were keeping him inside, however. â''I am not quite under house arrest,â'' he emailed me. But travel to the airport was too risky.

Sohne is another of those people that I think of as living in â''the Africa nobody knows,â'' people who should not exist if you never read past the screaming headlines about disaster, disease and mayhem in Africa. Sohne is a big brain, one of the most important codewriters in sub-Saharan Africa, and yet he is essentially invisible, too exceptional to demand the same attention given to Africaâ''s routine troublemakers.

For Sohne, who is in his early 30s, writing software remains the great technology hope for his region. Many young, educated Africans agree. With only a cheap laptop and a Web connection, young Africans can compete â'' seemingly on a level playing field â'' with the best of the rest in the world. With the press of their keyboard, they can obliterate distance and deliver their code to customers around the world.

That vision captivates Sohne, who is a forceful advocate for home-grown software. While his aspirations are typical, his story is unusual. Raised in Accra, Ghana, Sohne excelled in school, won admittance as an undergraduate to Princeton University and then showed his stubborn rebellious streak. He dropped out and returned to Ghana.

I first met Sohne five years ago at Busy Internet, the best Web café in West Africa. Sohne wrote software for nearly everyone in Accra, but he also was a forceful and intelligent advocate for African-made computer code. He spoke often on radio and at public meetings about the potential for information technology to lift his fellow Africans out of poverty and into the global mainstream. Partly because of his frenetic energy and his lack of concern for his physical appearance, he reminded me of a beat poet from the 1950s. To Westerners who visited Accra â'' notably the Internet philanthropist Ethan Zuckerman â'' Sohne became a legendary character, a compelling personality.

Sohne tried mightily to build open-source software organizations in Ghana and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. He certainly raised awareness of Linux and the importance of sharing code. As I pointed out in an essay of my own on Africaâ''s software community, sharing code ran counter to the proprietary impulses that arise in a â''scarcity economyâ'' where people worry that a pie that isnâ''t growing shouldnâ''t be shared at all.

Rather poignantly, Sohneâ''s activist efforts failed repeatedly. We even failed together; in 2003, we started an open-source community project that sputtered, then died, because too few people in Accraâ''s small community of programmers were willing, like Sohne, to donate their time.

Because he lacks a public body of work â'' and has never been appointed by an African government to any prestigious â''placeholderâ'' position -- Sohne seems like a digital ghost. He often writes impassioned, intelligent comments on tech â''threads,â'' and not always from an African perspective either. Around the world, across the reality of cyberspace, Sohne he cast a long shadow, one of a handful of African technologists who roams across the full spectrum of IT issues.

In recent months, Sohne has emerged from the shadows. Microsoft Corp. has hired him to work out of the companyâ''s Nairobi office. His job includes helping Microsoft interact with open-source consumers in Africa. The move to Microsoft says much about how the private sector can and does support talent in Africa. How Sohne balances his earnest commitment to Africaâ''s public welfare and Microsoftâ''s needs will be interesting to watch. But heâ''s already notched a big win â'' by reminding the world's software community that some of Africaâ''s best brains remain at home, animated by visions of future triumphs.

Virtual frog

My 7th grade frog dissection story: The girl next to me found her frog full of eggs, which were irresistible to the 7th grade boys, and they could not stop themselves from puncturing the formaldehyde-filled little sacks. As in any bad tween flick, the mess was soon all over a prissy girl's sweater. Then there was crying.

Never again! From fainting to throwing up to budding animal rights activism, all our war stories will now be abrogated by the V-frog, the world's first virtual-reality-based frog dissection software. Designed for grade 7-12 biology classes, it allows "not mere observation, but physically simulated dissection." V-frog, which was developed at the University of Buffalo Virtual Reality Lab spin-off Tactus Technologies, takes the act of dissecting a frog out of the messy biological realm and into cool, refreshing virtuality.

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You wield your V-scalpel on your V-frog by way of a personal computer and a standard mouse. But the software also lets you do things that you neither can do, nor would want to do, in reality.

"You can go through the entire alimentary canal, using the endoscopic function -- something you could never do with a real frog," says [Tactus president Kevin] Chugh. "Likewise, with our V-Frog, you can explore nerves and blood vessels, and look closely at how the brain is wired. Students would never get the opportunity to see and work with these things this way with a real frog."

The Humane Society is also on board, as virtual-reality frog dissection means no dead frogs to cart around the grade school and a much lower formaldehyde bill. No word yet on V-pig or V-earthworm. Stay tuned.

BlackBerry Service Outage Hits North America

Update: Service has been restored to "most users"--according to prominent media accounts such as this one--but the cause of the BlackBerry service malfunction has not been disclosed.

As of 3:30 pm EST, BlackBerry wireless communications service in North America has gone dark, according to a report from the Associated Press. Service provider AT&T told the AP that the outage is affecting all wireless carriers.

The Reuters news agency reports that Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian maker of BlackBerry smart phones, has sent e-mail to its customers that its service had experienced a "critical severity outage" on Monday.

"This is an emergency notification regarding the current BlackBerry Infrastructure outage," RIM support account manager Bryan Simpson said in the e-mail message, according to Reuters. He added in the note, that the service interruption affected users of the highly popular service throughout the Americas.

As of 6:00 pm EST, RIM had yet to post a statement on its company website.

The Reuters report notes that the e-mail note sent by RIM's Simpson made no mention of the cause of the outage or when service might be restored.

A similar service interruption occurred last April, leaving thousands of BlackBerry users without access to wireless e-mail. There is currently no information from RIM, either, as to how many of its customers are affected by today's disruption.

Plug-in hybrids win big in ZEV tweaks

Plug-in mania has an influential new fan: the California Air Resources Board, which looks set to elevate plug-ins several notches in its zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate.

The ZEV directive requires car manufacturers to market ultraclean and emissions-free vehicles (or buy credits earned by others making such vehicles). The California Air Resources Board unleashed intense lobbying this winter among battery EV start-ups, major automakers, hydrogen fuel-cell developers, and coalitions promoting plugâ''in hybrids when it promised to tweak the level of credits earned by various technologies. From the Air Resources Board staff proposal released late last week, plug-ins appear to be the big winners.

Presently the ZEV credit ratios favor fuel cells and offer relatively little help for plug-ins. The staff proposal would change this by enabling manufacturers to meet most of their ZEV requirements through 2014 with plug-in hybrids and hydrogen combustion vehicles. While not pure ZEVs like battery EVs and fuel cell vehicles, the California regulators bet that manufacture of plug-ins will yield components and infrastructure that will hasten the day when the pure EVs go mainstream.

"The goal continues to be to accelerate the development of pure ZEVs," says Air Resources Board member Daniel Sperling, director of the University of California, Davis, Institute of Transportation Studies. Sperling says promoting plug-in hybrids is the "only realistic way" to push car makers forward in light of the continued high cost of batteries and fuel cells.

Sperling and his fellow Air Resources Board members will take up the staff proposal after a public hearing in Sacramento scheduled for March 27-28.

Meanwhile, Arizona regulators seem to be feeling considerably more bullish about the viability of pure electrics. The Arizona Republic reports that Airzona's Department of Environmental Quality has drafted rules mandating that 11 percent of all cars sold in the state must be ZEVs from the 2011 model year. In 2018 the mandate would jump to 16 percent.

Brain on a Chip, DARPA-style

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At places like Janelia Farm (the "Bell Labs for neurobiology" run by Howard Highes Medical Institute) engineers are already trying to apply existing knowledge about the intricate wiring diagrams of integrated circuits to the inseparable mess of synapses that clogs our brains.

Now DARPA is joining the fray, to the tune of $3 million. In its $3.29 billion FY 2009 budget, the DOD's research wing specifies a program to make a chip that looks and acts like a brain (whether that's a human brain or a fruit fly brain remains to be specified). They're calling it Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE.

"The program will develop a brain inspired electronic 'chip' that mimics that function, size, and power consumption of a biological cortex," DARPA promises us. "If successful, the program will provide the foundations for functional machines to supplement humans in many of the most demanding situations faced by warfighters today" -- like getting usable information out of video feeds, and starting tasks.

Wired's Danger Room has much more, including (but not limited to) the proposed unmanned ambulance in the sky.

Hulk Smash Fort Bliss, TX!

[see update here, with video goodness]

 

On February 19th, DARPA's 6.5-ton behemoth unmanned autonomous vehicle, which they've lovingly nicknamed Crusher, will be going through field trials in Fort Bliss, TX. As it happens, I will be there taking video and attempting to liveblog the event.

 

This video offers a slightly disconcerting peek at the six-wheeled monstrosity that I really kind of really really want to test drive.

 

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Photo Credit: Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute

 

But I can't, because this vehicle is autonomous by design--it was built without room for passengers, which leaves room for all kinds of sensors and goodies, like a six-meter telescopic mast.

 

Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute has been tinkering with the unmanned autonomous vehicle since 2003, so it's really about time someone did something useful with it. Unconfirmed reports have indicated that the Army is taking over the project this year.

 

Check back on February 19, for some original video and maybe even some answers.

 

 

The Microsoft - Yahoo Merger: For Instant Messaging, It's Already Happened

Michael Robertson has something interesting to say about the Microsoft-Yahoo merger, still on hold, but likely, in the view of many observers, to eventually be consummated.

Robertson is a pretty sharp guy. He founded MP3.com, which was bought by Vivendi Universal for a whole boatload of money in 2001, right before the dot-com crash. He founded Linspire, a flavor of Linux with a user interface that was inspired, if that's the word, by a very familiar one. I won't say which, except that the software's original name was Lindows, which I mention mainly to retell one of my favorite comments ever by a federal judge. When Microsoft sued Robertson's company over the name, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said,

Although Lindows.com certainly made a conscious decision to play with fire by choosing a product and company name that differs by only one letter from the world's leading computer software program, one could just as easily conclude that in 1983 Microsoft made an equally risky decision to name its product after a term commonly used in the trade to indicate the windowing capability of a GUI.

Anyway, here's what Robertson has to say about the merger, predicting Microsoft's eventual success.

Both companies are getting trounced by Google in search, but there's more to the world then just search. Yahoo has enormously valuable net assets which, when combined with Microsoft, will create a giant in several areas. One example is IM (instant messaging).

Many may be surprised to learn that Microsoft's IM network is now more than twice as big as anyone else and Yahoo has moved past Granddaddy AOL into second place. If Microsoft and Yahoo combine their IM networks (which are already interconnected) it would be multiple times bigger than anyone else.

In other words, if you're on MSN Messenger, you can add Yahoo Messenger contacts, and vice versa.

Robertson has a particular thing for instant messaging, because his latest project is something called Gizmo5, which is an interoperability program for instant messaging and voice over Internet-protocol. (In fact,it might be fair to say that the IM is a freebie to attract users to Robertson's Skype-like VoIP offering). Robertson has a nice little chart delineating which IM programs are already interoperable with which others. For some reason, the chart doesn't have a row for Meebo, a Web-based IM program that lets you manage, and IM, from all your different accounts, whether they're multiple accounts on one IM platform, or across several platforms, including AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, and MSN.

I have a particular thing for IM as well, having written about it several times, including an article last month that looked at IM on cellphones ("IM Doing Fine"). But Robertson's comments go beyond IM. Generally, analysts aren't looking for these sorts of inner compatibilities between the companies, and that's a shame, because ultimately the success of a merger, and whether it makes business sense, stands or falls in large part on such considerations. I'll have more to say about that in a future post.

Shuttle Carries Columbus Laboratory into Space

The Atlantis orbiter roared from its launch pad at Cape Canveral, in Florida, today at 2:45 pm EST. In its cargo bay, it carried the Columbus Laboratory, which has been waiting transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) for nearly two years. Early forecasts calling for overcast conditions at launch time evaporated in the Florida sunshine and lift-off occurred exactly on schedule.

The flight, the 24th shuttle mission to the ISS and known as STS-122, took about 8.5 minutes to rise into orbit. Its principal mission is to attach the Columbus science module, built by the European Space Agency (ESA), to the space station.

Columbus has long been considered a key element to the ISS platform and was approved for construction by the participating members of ESA some 22 years ago originally. Once installed and integrated into the ISS, in future spacewalks, it will double the capabilities for scientific research from orbit, joining the U.S.-made Destiny Laboratory. Command and control of the new science lab will be handled by the Columbus Control Centre, in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. Its launch today brings an end to flight delays caused by backlogs in the American space program brought on chiefly by the tragic loss of the Columbia orbiter in 2003.

According to NASA, the crew of Atlantis consists of Commander Steve Frick, Pilot Alan Poindexter, and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and the European Space Agency's Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts.

For those online, NASA has provided an STS-122 Blog, where space junkies can get caught up on every detail of the mission, as well as plenty of video and podcasts. For sports junkies, Atlantis is carrying three starter's flags for the upcoming Daytona 500 stock-car race (see Atlantis to Help Mark NASCAR Milestone). NASA is marking the 50 anniversary of its creation this year and the big NASCAR race is celebrating its 50th annual running, as well. Upon the return of Atlantis, scheduled 11 days from now, one of the flags will be used to start the "Great American Race."

The current mission of Atlantis was first targeted for early December, but persistent problems with sensors in the vehicle's external liquid-fuel tank caused administrators to postpone its launch on multiple occasions. (See our previous blogs Bad Day for a Space Launch, Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks, and NASA Sets New Dates for Next Shuttle Launches.) Today, the four sensors worked perfectly.

Atlantis will also pick up American astronaut Daniel Tani, whose stay aboard the ISS has been extended far longer than anticipated by the faulty fuel sensor problem. Tani has been working on space station assignments since late October. He had been scheduled to return home in time to spend the December holidays with his young family. Sadly, his mother was killed in an auto accident days after his return was postponed (see our item Sad Holiday for Space Station Astronaut). He will be replaced on the ISS by Eyharts, a general in the French Air Force.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the Associated Press today: "We're coming back, and I think we are back, from some pretty severe technical problems that led to the loss of Columbia." He said he was looking forward to a stretch of problem-free space flights that " should be like some of those earlier times when we had some fairly interrupted stretches with no technical problems where we could just fly."

Stanford's High Energy Physics Lab goes to....the dump

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This week, bulldozers are knocking down and carting away the Stanford High Energy Physics Laboratory, a.k.a. Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory, to make room for a new Science and Engineering Quad. The 1949 building, originally funded by the Office of Naval Research, housed a long line of pioneering accelerators and led to the development of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. From 1952 to 1990 alone it was a home to more than 700 research projects, 13 National Academy of Science members, three Nobel Laureates, and 750 Ph.D.s. Experiments included the first large-scale superfluid accelerator and the first high-energy colliding beam test.

The tunnel housing Stanfordâ''s free electron laser lies four stories below the building; it will be preserved.

The site above ground will become the universityâ''s second Science and Engineering Quad, encompassing the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Enviroment and Energy Building (Y2E2), the School of Engineering Center, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technlology, and the Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering Building.

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Karl Brown at the controls of the Mark II accelerator in 1949 or 1950.

Top photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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