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Will Obama Scrutinize the Nanotech Bill?

Despite my own reflection that the Obama administration will likely move forward with whatever nanotech bill Congress puts before it, there may be some reasons for the administration to take a second look.

While the House overwhelmingly passed the bill last fall, it never made it through the Senate. And even if it had made it through the Senate, it was unclear whether Bush would have signed it into law as his administration was forcing a number of changes that are described here by Robert Service.

Among one of the more controversial Bush administration provisions was the removal of the requirement that a specific percentage of NNI funds be spent on Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) research. And, frankly, that was the real change from all the other NNI bills.

It would seem that whatever form the bill finally takes will be satisfactory to certain factions within the nanotechnology community. But it seems the Obama administration is really taking science quite seriously, and may decide that they're not going to accept just any bill, but a good one.

Will A Delayed Analog TV Shutdown Fix the Transition? Not Likely.

digtv120-thumb.gifThe analog TV shutdown, at this writing, is still scheduled for 17 February; a proposal in Congress, supported by now-President Obama, would push that to 12 June. Would that solve any problems? For me personally, here in Palo Alto, Calif., yes; construction crews will be moving digital antennas around at the Sutro Tower broadcast site into the summer, a February shutdown is likely to leave me getting most my news and entertainment from the Internet until then.

For the nation as a whole, not likely. The reason for the proposed delay is that the coupon program has, on paper, run out of money; we need to wait until the program is better funded and more folks have an opportunity to order, receive, and cash in coupons. I'm just not getting how 12 June would be so much better than 17 February. Note that while more coupons have been requested than have been budgeted for, not all have been redeemed.

Here are the numbers. About 47,000,000 coupons have been mailed. Nearly 20,000,000 have been redeemed for boxes, 14,000,000 have expired. Another 2,500,000 people or so have requested coupons, but can't get them until more of the ones sent out expire. So giving folks more time to get their coupons before the transition day, it seems, would make everyone happy. That all makes sense when you just look at the numbers.

But look instead at what is likely going on behind those numbers. OK, 47,000,000 people saw the ads on TV urging them to get a coupon. They're not entirely sure if they need a coupon or not, but just in case, they'll order one. At least 14,000,000 and likely more whose coupons have yet to expire got the coupon in the mail and then forgot about it, realized that they hadn't understood the ads, that they have cable and don't need a coupon, or they subsequently bought a digital TV or are thinking about it. Or have simply stopped thinking about it at all. Some of these folks won't think about it again until the analog signal goes dark; then they'll want a new coupon, but won't be allowed to order it (two per household, expired or not). They won't be happy, whether shutdown is 17 February or 12 June.

Then there are the 20,000,000 who bought the boxes. Some, like me, installed them, and are either happily receiving a digital signal or have figured out that converting is going to be a lot more complex than simply installing a box. Based on anecdotal evidence, that's not a big number.

Instead, far more put that converter box package unopened in the closet, not understanding that while analog shutdown hasn't happened yet, they still can hook it up and start using it right now. They understood the message of the vast advertising campaign to mean that on 17 February they're going to have to hook up this box, and with a box in the closet, they feel prepared to do that. What they won't know until they hook it up is whether they'll need a new antenna, new wiring, or will be able to receive digital signals at all. Others are waiting to buy the box, some with a coupon, some just on their own, until analog shutdown happens.

These folks, no one knows exactly how many, are who will determine whether analog shutdown is a success or a nightmare. And we won't find out their stories until shutdown happens, be it 17 February or 12 June.

So turn it off already. And then figure out if more money needs to be put into the program, whether it's for more converter subsidies, or for installing new antennas on the roofs of senior citizens, or for subsidizing cable for low-income folks in digital dead zones.

See more of Spectrumâ''s coverage of the Day Analog TV Dies here.

Obama Staffers Find Technology at White House a Little Dated

The last time a new U.S. presidential administration moved into the White House, eight years ago, some staff members serving George W. Bush found the W's on their office keyboards missing. As legend has it, the cause was a bit of tomfoolery on the part of outgoing staffers who had served Bill Clinton and (defeated presidential candidate) Al Gore.

This time, there have been no reports of pranks involving PC keyboards, but some incoming staffers are grumbling a little about the equipment itself. To be blunt, they think it's old.

An article in today's Washington Post chronicles a number of problems faced by aides to the new president on their first day at work: disconnected phones, outdated software, missing security codes, and so on.

Overall, though, the Post article described a mood of disappointment yesterday among the plugged-in presidential support apparatus. These folks, after all, were responsible for using their state-of-the-art technology skills to get Barack Obama elected in the first place, using online social networking to raise vast amounts of money and staying in touch with their constituency around the clock with the latest electronics devices and software.

Now in charge in the most powerful office in the world, these staffers find themselves confronted by what can only be described as culture shock.

"It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told the Post about his workplace technology.

In something of a stretch, the newspaper account notes that the new White House Website had not been updated as of last night with the latest presidential orders from the historic first day, due to software glitches. Rest assured, though, it's working fine today.

And, in perhaps the most telling piece of a cultural disconnect between the Bush administration and the Obama one, it turns out that the new regime are Macintosh users, who are used to working in the latest OS X flavor, as opposed to the Windows XP machines they find themselves inheriting.

"It is what it is," a new White House staff member, speaking off the record, told the Post.

Those are words that should sound familiar to anyone starting a new job and finding a really old PC left behind by the last person.

UPDATE: IBM "very much involved" with Blue Brain Project

On January 8, I wrote that IBM had pulled out of the collaboration with the Blue Brain project.

It's not true; but actually to appropriate Peter Woit's complaint about string theory, it's not even wrong. Let's unpack.

The reporting on the Blue Brain project so far has been heavy on hand-waving and light on technology and business details. That might have something to do with the fact that not even the people at IBM are clear on their relationship with the Blue Brain project. Even at IBM's T.J. Watson research campus in New York, where much of the Blue Brain effort was happening between 2005 and 2007, the wires got crossed, leading to the misapprehension that "IBM Research completed the first phase of the Blue Brain project and we are not involved with the second phase." A senior staff person for Blue Gene computing confirmed what the PR person had told me, saying that IBM and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Blue Brain's home, had no formal ties and that Blue Brain project director Henry Markram could put his Blue Brain on the next generation of IBM's Blue Gene, or that he could put it on some other company's supercomputer. "Our architecture would be the path of least resistance," he shrugged.

IBM Zurich leaped to the rescue with a full correction on the status of the IBM/Blue Brain collaboration.

David Cremese, the manager of Deep Computing Programs at IBM Zurich, told me that the first phase of Markram's project is complete but that IBM intends very much to collaborate on future phases. It is very likely, he says, that the next generation of Blue Brain will be housed on the next generation of Blue Gene. And Markram confirms that the Blue Brain project is not going to continue without the Blue Gene/P. This is not quite like upgrading your laptop. A system this complex is riddled with programming specific to the architecture of the machine, so it would be very time consuming and expensive to switch horses mid-stream.

For Markram, though, this presents an opportunity to clear up some muddy reporting about his project. "There is a serious misconception that IBM somehow funded or donated to support the Blue Brain Project," he says. "The press through the last 3 years has always got this wrong." In many reports, the IBM tie was overemphasized. Blue Brain is funded primarily by the Swiss government and secondarily by Markram's grants and some donations from private individuals. As far as I can tell, the misapprehension that IBM funded Blue Brain started when IBM sent EPFL a Blue Gene/L below market price. Markram says that's because the Blue Gene/L was a prototype at the time and EPFL was a beta site.

IBM also paid for two postdoctoral fellows to the Blue Brain effort: one postdoc was sent to Switzerland from T.J. Watson to work at EPFL, and a second postdoc remained at Watson to work on computational neuroscience algorithms for Blue Brain. However, it turns out Watson had no intention to support (via post-doctoral fellows, discounted supercomputers, or any other kind of assistance) the project past 2007.

The same is not true of IBM Zurich. "IBM is very much involved and is a trusted technology partner of the project," IBM Zurich media analyst Susan Orozco says. "The team that developed the Blue Gene technology [at Watson] will continue to collaborate with the Blue Brain project," adds Cremese.

The takeaway: Blue Brain is just fine. IBM, well, they just need to get their stories straight.

The Digital TV Transition and the Environment

digtv120-thumb.gifFor consumers watching over-the-air television on an analog set, converting to digital will have at least some environmental impact. Adding a converter box means extending the life of an older television; that means not consuming resources to produce and ship a new television, and not putting a toxic-laden box into the waste or, hopefully, recycling stream. But adding a converter box isnâ''t a slam dunk for the environment; old cathode ray tube televisions consume vastly more power than new flat-screen models, and the converter box is a bit of a power-sucker itself.

Neither the FCC nor the consumer electronics manufacturers have dared to predict how many analog television households will choose to add a converter box, or how many will simply replace their television sets. Or how many third or fourth TVs, which were relegated to the basement or a kids room, will simply be disposed of, neither converted nor replaced.

Looking at the numbers, consumers have requested nearly 50,000,000 converter box coupons, nearly 47,000,000 have been mailed. Some 21,0000,000 have been redeemed; some 14,000,000 have expired. Thatâ''s at least 14,000,000 people who decided not to go with a converter box after considering it; I doubt they all signed up for cable. Some of them, as well as, Iâ''m sure, a large number of consumers who never ordered a converter box coupon at all, simply decided that their old analog televisions werenâ''t really worth the hassle of keeping, and have or are going to replace them.

So when analog shutdown day comes, be it 17 February as currently scheduled, or delayed, environmentalists are expecting consumers to dispose of a flood of old CRT televisions. Theyâ''re guessing that, at minimum, at least one in four of the 106,000,000 US households will get rid of at least one TV, probably more. And thatâ''s worrying them. CRT televisions contain leadâ''an average of 1.8 kg per setâ''along with cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and brominated flame-retardants. Recycling them isnâ''t cheap or easy; as a result, many TVs intended for recycling are shipped out to Asian and West African countries, where they are disposed of unsafely.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is urging consumers to push manufacturers to take back their own products and recycle them properly. You can find out how responsible the manufacturer of your television is and how to write directly to the company here. (Sony, so far, is the only manufacturer that the Toxics Coalition believes, at this point, is getting it all right.) And, at minimum, you can make sure that when you dispose of a television it goes to a recycling program, not to the dump.

For more of Spectrum's coverage of the planned analog shutdown, see The Day Analog TV Dies.

Intel Announces Up to 6000 Job Cuts, Will Close Plants

The world's leading chipmaker announced today that it will cut about 7 percent of its workforce as part of a company-wide restructuring. It will also shutter two of its international test facilities, one in Malaysia and one in the Philippines.

In a press release, Intel Corp. said it will lay off 5000 to 6000 workers, "to restructure some of its manufacturing operations and align its manufacturing capacity to current market conditions."

The announcement, released after market hours, said the company aims to "consolidate and streamline some older capacity without impacting the deployment of new, leading-edge 45-nanometer and 32-nanometer manufacturing capacity."

Intel added that it will close its sites in Penang, Malaysia, and Cavite, the Philippines, as well as older plants in Hillsboro, Ore., and Santa Clara, Calif. (home of the microprocessor giant).

The company stated that not all the affected employees will leave the firm outright, some "may be offered positions" at other sites. The moves will take place between now and the end of the year, according to Intel.

Nanotech-enabled Batteries To Constitute A New US Auto Industry

We now have Howard Lovy, former editor of Small Times, writing for two blogs. His own supposedly more provocative Nanobot blog and now back again at Small Times.

If his recent entry on the state of battery technology for automobiles on the new Small Times blog is supposed to be a more restrained version of his Nanobot blog, then he will be forced to incite riots on his old blog just to keep up. I hope he can keep it up.

I liked this bit in particular, when discussing the automotive industryâ''s heel dragging when it came to electric-powered automobiles:

It's not that innovation is lacking. Some of the leading research into nanotech-enabled lithium-ion batteries is being done right in my hometown [Detroit]. But only now has it dawned on the federal and state governments to push that innovation forward through financial aid and tax breaks. And only now have U.S. battery companies realized that they can combine some of their efforts to bring those innovations from the lab to the marketplace.

Late and late.

Whether companies developed around supplying nano-enabled batteries can resurrect the US auto industry is debatable. However, there is little doubt that instruments need to be developed and supported to encourage innovation rather than maintaining the status quo.

With Obama making an oath to â''restore science to its rightful placeâ'', one could hope that means it will be taken a bit more seriously, and will be allowed to push innovation and economic growth. Then maybe Mr. Lovy will see his beloved Detroit enjoy a renaissance.

Hope for the Future: The Smart Grid Is Just What Obama Calls For

In his inauguration speech today, Pres. Barack Obama noted, "the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."

He could not be clearer that the United States needs to become more energy efficient. And in his first formal address as president, he called upon the American people to find a way to employ their legendary inventiveness to create technologies to solve this and other major problems facing the nation.

"We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology wonders to raise health-care quality and lower its cost," Obama insisted. "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age."

Fortunately, one of the promising technologies that the new president is counting on is not too far away: using the latest in computers and communications tools to transmit and distribute energy more efficiently. This burgeoning engineering movement has been dubbed "the smart grid."

The ideas behind it were presented recently at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum West (Reff West) conference in Seattle, 27-28 October 2008. In a conference session, leading energy experts discussed breakthroughs that are bringing the promises of the smart grid closer to reality. The full session was recorded and a complete online video is also now available for public viewing.

Produced by the IEEE Power and Energy Society and ScienCentral Inc., the Reff West video describes the smart grid and how its scale will reduce our carbon footprint through energy efficiency and the integration of renewable sources of energy in coming decades.

It makes for must-see viewing by those who have committed themselves to taking up the challenge laid down by the new American president this afternoon.

As the history of the United States has shown, this country has repeatedly dug itself out of its own holes by inspiration and perspiration, using technology of its own making to create a more prosperous and equitable world.

So that's one call to action from the incoming president that we should all answer as best we can in the years ahead.

Intel Slashes Prices on Its Microprocessor Lineup

Intel Corp. will cut prices across the board on its stable of computer chips, from Pentium to Core 2 Quad processors, to reduce inventory on hand in the wake of the global economic slump.

Last week, Intel announced its annual financial results, reporting revenue in 2008 of US $37.6 billion, down 2 percent from 2007.

"The economy and the industry are in the process of resetting to a new baseline from which growth will resume," Intel CEO Paul Otellini wrote in the statement. "While the environment is uncertain, our fundamental business strategies are more focused than ever."

According to numerous press accounts, the world's largest chipmaker will slash prices on its existing wholesale stock to make way for its next-generation Nehalem line of 45-nanometer hi-k metal gate silicon technology.

The price cuts span the range from low-end laptop to high-end server chips. For example:

  • Celeron Dual-core E1400 processors reduced 19 percent to $43.

  • Pentium Dual-core E5300 processors reduced 14 percent to $74.

  • Core 2 Duo E7400 processors reduced 15 percent to $113.

  • Xeon X3370 processors reduced 40 percent to $316.

  • Core 2 Quad Q9650 processors reduced 40 percent to $316.

A news item from PC Magazine today concludes that the big news lies in the price cuts in the Core 2 Quad line. "The prices not only dropped the Core 2 Quad into a more competitive position with AMD, but also shook up Intel's price-performance hierarchy," the magazine noted.

Now, its up to the personal computer sector to revive interests in its flagging products with dramatic discounts to attract consumers again.

What Does Obamaâ¿¿s Inauguration Bode for Nanotechnology?

With tomorrowâ''s inauguration anticipated by the US like a child waiting for Christmas morning, just about every area of government is wondering how a new president and administration might impact it.

The area of nanotechnology is no different. On the one hand, we have Andrew Maynardâ''s 2020 blog making a rather hopeful reference to the Obama administration last week when discussing public engagement. And today, we have the somewhat more jaundiced view of TNTLog that makes a not at all promising comparison between the hopes for the Blair administration when it came to nanotech and the rather different reality.

To compound the reasonable skepticism that one may have on how much difference a president can make in propelling scientific development, there is no doubt that Obama is facing one of the most challenging landscapes for an incoming president. It is likely his ability to address some of the finer points of science investment will hardly be at the top of his list of priorities.

However, as TNTLog rightly points out, science is the engine of innovation and innovation in turn drives economic growth. Nonetheless this little truism will be hard to keep in focus when there will be such strident cries for government funds to bail out one industry after another.

The truth is that the Obama administration wonâ''t really need to drive legislation for nanotech, when the Democratic-led Congress already has already introduced a new nanotechnology bill. It has all the requisite sound and fury when addressing environmental, health and safety concerns, and the dollars still seem to be there.

A new question that the legislators ought to take into account as the bill works its way through Congress is how can it better ensure that the R&D funding will lead to economic impact. It still doesnâ''t seem clear to many that the far more difficult task is transferring research results into commercial products.


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