Tech Talk iconTech Talk

The New Look of IEEE Spectrum

As you've likely noticed by now, IEEE Spectrum has a new look. But the differences are more than cosmetic; we've also overhauled the content management system, which will make it easier for us to provide dynamic content throughout the site.

We've also tried to make it easier to discover new stories no matter where you are on the site. Let's say you're reading an article about whether it makes sense to send humans back to the moon. To the right of the article, you have access to the most popular content on the site that week, a few stories handpicked by our editors, and additional related content. We're even working on automatically linking to related content in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library (there are still some kinks, but we'll get it straightened out soon).

Which reminds me: please be patient as we continue to improve and fix glitches (those of you using Internet Explorer 6, I apologize for the layout problems plaguing that browser).

In the meantime, take a look around and explore the site. There are lots of changes.

We'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to leave your impressions and comments in the form below.

Music Vest

The future of music arrived in 1985, and we all missed it.

I for one am tired of lugging my iPod around everywhere I go. I'm tired of the nuisance of headphones. Which is why I have just sent away for Music Vest. Not available in stores.



National Broadband Plan Comments Due

Comments are due Monday, June 8, at the FCC on the National Broadband Plan (NBP.) The Notice of Inquiry lists some 120 questions that the Commission would like filers to address, running the gamut from goals and benchmarks to open access to privacy to entrepreneerial activity to job creation. Anyone who compiles a list of so many questions clearly hasn't given much thought to the problem under discussion, so it's clear upon reading the NOI that we're many years away from a good NBP, although we may have some vague and probably counter-productive guidelines much sooner: the FCC is supposed to report a plan to Congress by next February. Bear in mind that it tool the US 20 years to convert from analog to digital TV, and we're not even there yet.

It strikes me that we'd be doing well if we had  a national dialog well underway by February on what a NBP would look like in terms of goals and measurements. The discussion up to this point has been dominated by weeping and wailing about the ranking of the US relative to countries where high-speed networks have been built with combinations of government subsidies and service restrictions. In Japan, for example, NTT was allowed to write off 100% of the costs of pulling fiber to the building (mostly apartments) as part of the deal that allowed it to private. Given the many demands on the federal treasury at the moment, that seems an unlikely path for the US. In South Korea, KT restricts the use of VoIP on its network to those who subscribe to its own service, to the dismay of American servicemen and women who want to use Vonage to phone home. Sweden and France have very low cost, government subsidized fiber networks, but only in the big cities.

And there's the question of what these rankings mean in a historical context. Will the massive investments that other countries have made in broadband networks be followed up by continuous service upgrades, or are they going down as one-time blips that will fail to live up to the hype? There's no way of knowing these things right now, although it is reasonably clear that the US is adding new fiber-to-the-home connections faster than any country except Japan (and even that's a bit uncertain, as the actual pattern there is fiber to the building and VDSL to the actual apartment.)   I'd like to see more fiber as much as the next guy, but I'm skeptical that the subsidy model is going to work very well in the US.

So it strikes me that the only questions worth answering in the FCC's laundry list are those that relate to goals and objectives. Rather than wringing our hands about where we stand compared to the rest of the world, we need to get very clear about WHY we want a national plan, more or less what applications we hope to enable with it, and how much taxpayer money we're willing to spend on it. Given those general outlines, we can begin to evaluate business and technology models so we can see what gives us the most bang for the buck.

I'd also like to know what people are doing with their super-fast broadband connections abroad. There's a suspiciously high correlation between the crappiness of local TV and broadband speed, so it may turn out that the value of fast broadband is mainly found in fast downloads of American TV shows and movies. If that's the case, a better broadband infrastructure in the US would simply duplicate the cable TV network and there's not much point in that unless you're an Internet advertiser.

But if it turns out that our overseas cousins are developing immersive gaming, telemedicine, and video-conferencing apps that enable new capabilities with massive social utility, I'll climb onboard the subsidy bandwagon.

As an engineer, I need the data before I make up my mind.

File your comments with the FCC's ECFS.

Is IBM Starting A New Nanotech Business Unit?

I have noticed a sudden rash of countries announcing new nanotechnology initiatives backed by IBM's expertise and know-how.


Upon my first recognition of this phenomenon, I wondered whether the fledgling nanotechnology initiative hadn't been a little bit overly hopeful in what IBM could do for them.


But if increased numbers of similar countries, such as Bulgaria and Egypt, doing the same thing are any indication that this is the right path to take in jump starting your national nanotechnology initiative than it appears I was off the mark in the first instance.


While IBM nurtures the nanotechnology dreams of countries around the world, even going so far as to "develop a services science university curriculum", back in the US the State of New York is wondering whether all the money they poured into IBM to lead it into being the Silicon Valley of nanotech may have been a waste of public funds.


It seems that there must be a profit in spreading your knowledge around and not focusing it to the benefit of one region. I feel a "I told you so" coming on.


Obama Makes It Official: Picks Bolden to Lead NASA

Over the weekend, Pres. Barack Obama made official what many space watchers had expected for months by nominating Charles Bolden to lead NASA.

The 62-year-old Bolden is a retired U.S. Marine Corps brigadier general who graduated from the United States Naval Academy (with a degree in electrical engineering) in 1968 and rose through the ranks from fighter pilot to test pilot to astronaut over a 35-year military career.

While assigned to NASA, Bolden served in several administrative roles before getting a chance to fly into orbit aboard the space shuttle in 1986. His first spaceflight came with mission STS-61C, piloting the Columbia in a successful deployment of a major communications satellite. Bolden followed up with stints as the pilot of STS-31 in 1990, in which the Discovery shuttle took the Hubble Space Telescope to its longstanding orbital destination, and the commander of Atlantis for STS-45 in 1992, which visited Spacelab for science studies, and of Discovery for STS-60 in 1994, which served as the historic first joint U.S./Russian shuttle mission.

Returning to the Marine Corps in 1994, Bolden served as the Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy and later the Commander of the Third Marine Air Wing at Miramar Air Station in California before retiring from active duty in 2003.

In a press release from the White House on Saturday, Pres. Obama announced that he intends to name Bolden as the next Administrator of NASA, following Michael Griffin, who retired in January, as well as to nominate NASA management expert Lori Garver as the new Deputy Administrator of NASA. Garver, 48, is a civilian who has previously served in a string of top space agency administrative posts.

Commenting on his choices for the top jobs at NASA, Pres. Obama said, "These talented individuals will help put NASA on course to boldly push the boundaries of science, aeronautics, and exploration in the 21st century and ensure the long-term vibrancy of America's space program."

The news came as little surprise to those who cover the American space program. Writing in January on the management flux facing NASA following the election of a new commander-in-chief (please see Status of NASA Administrator Grows More Tenuous by the Day), this reporter noted that Bolden was the clear frontrunner for the leadership position, with Garver and others providing competition.

Upon hearing the news, former administrator Griffin commented: "Gen. Bolden is not only a longtime friend and colleague, he is someone who has devoted most of his life to the service of his country. NASA will be in good hands."

Ironically, Bolden, a native of Columbia, S.C., almost never got the opportunity to rise to the top of American aeronautics because of his ethnicity. As a young black man in South Carolina, the representatives to Congress from his state refused to nominate him for admission to the Naval Academy during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, he sought an appointment to Annapolis from a different state representative and won it.

Bolden is married to the former Alexis "Jackie" Walker of South Carolina and has two grown children.

The White House has not announced when his nomination as the twelfth NASA administrator will be sent to Congress for approval.

Will the US Stimulus Bill Prove the Savior for Nanotech?

Last week in a column published by Nanotech Now Alan B. Shalleck chronicled the many business woes of nanotech companies in the current economic environment.

While it seems I have been going on and on about how talk of nanotechâ''s â''gold rushâ'' is clearly misinformed and the problem is not some rush to commercialization but rather the shocking lack of commercialization thus far, I am heartened that there are some like Shalleck who recognize that the commercialization of nanotechnology is struggling.

Shalleck provides the evidence of this faltering business situation and offers a solution: the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Shalleck points that in the ARRA â''nanotechnologyâ'' is specifically cited as â''one of the country's economic saving industriesâ''. Now I know we're in trouble.

Despite my skepticism, Shalleck strikes an optimistic chord as he urges nanotech entrepreneurs to scope out ARRA funds to finance their companies for applications in everything from building insulation to DNA diagnostics.

This doesnâ''t seem to leave much hope for the current crop of nanotech businesses struggling to stay afloat and even for the new breed they can expect to wait some years before the funds get into their pockets for launching a new business.

I guess in this environment, even optimism is a little scary.

Combination of Nanoparticles Extend Data Lifetime on Memory Cards

It seems that the documents and presentations you have stored on your memory stick could possibly be maintained for a billion years without degrading, according to initial reports of soon to be published research.

Prof. Alex Zettl in the Department of Physics at U.C. Berkeley and in the Materials Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted the research.

The research describes the use of an iron nanoparticle contained within a carbon nanotube in which when in the presence of electricity the nanoparticle slides back and forth along the nanotube. This serves as a memory device that can store digital information and play it back on computer hardware.

While no timetable is provided for when this technology could possibly make it into commercial products, it is likely some time off. And as recent evidence has shown, the obstacles will not just be technical ones.

Russia's Nanotechnology Initiative Comes Under Attack from Its Own Political Leaders

After devoting some ink to Russiaâ''s peculiarities in its nanotechnology initiative, I was beginning to develop a begrudging respect for the idea of the government supporting the commercialization aspect of nanotechnology as much as, if not more than, it funded the research.

I arrived at this sense after seeing how the US government officials were coming to the realization that the â''next Industrial Revolutionâ'' had not really met their expectations, with a seeming lack of job creation and other economic impacts. Maybe if someone acknowledged that the time, energy and money spent to get a research project to market probably far exceeds those expended in the research, the idea of investing in the commercialization of research projects makes a lot of sense.

But no sooner had I come to that realization than President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this month singled out the State Nanotechnology Corporation Rusnano as an example of how itâ''s a mistake to create large, state-owned corporations.

"[Rusnano] is the kind of instrument that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work at all," Medvedev said, calling the company a "large structure that has a lot of money and that still has to understand how to correctly spend it."

The â''sometimes works and sometimes doesnâ''t workâ'' phrase from the quote implies that there is not something fundamentally wrong with the idea. Instead problems arise in the execution, or at least that seems to be the logic of the quote.

This is further supported by the follow up criticism leveled against Rusnano by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov who accused the company of "lagging behind" in realizing its goals.

Russiaâ''s political officials seem to like the idea in principle they just want it to be more successful and to happen faster. Mind you this is hardly two years into the program.

With the money, the apparent sense of urgency and the commitment to charting the economic impact of nanotechnology accurately, Iâ''m beginning to think Russia may very well meet their rather lofty goals in the field of nanotechnology


This is my first post on Tech Talk, so I should probably introduce myself for those of you who haven't followed my career as closely as I have. Congressman Rick Boucher, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet introduced me to his panel recently as "a network engineer and a blogger," and I can wear that label with pride; alternative viewpoints have also been expressed.

I've been designing, implementing, and debating networks and network architectures for a few years now: if you use an Ethernet hub, a Wi-Fi access point, or a UWB system (unlikely,) you've used systems and standards that I had a hand in creating. My chief technical interest for lo these many years has been the design of network systems that support a diverse mix of applications well, an area that we often call Quality of Service.

Those of use who work with QoS can't help but notice a sudden interest in our line of work by lawmakers beginning around 2005. This is when net neutrality became a legislative hot topic, thanks in large part to some provocative statements by a couple of now-retired telco CEOs.

A number of content indexers got nervous, and lawmakers responded in 2006 with a number of bills aimed at protecting this heretofore unknown right. These bills - Snowe-Dorgan is a good example - generally reached into the business model of ISPs and carriers with a ban on fee-based enhanced QoS offerings. This struck me as counter-productive so I entered the fray.

Subsequently, I've testified before Congress and the FCC, debated the set of issues around network regulation with a diverse crowd of lawyers, engineers, and advocates, and generally tried to raise public awareness about an issue that few engineers grasp all that well. I'm currently writing a white paper that puts some of these issues into their proper historical and technical perspective.

We've just elected a president who campaigned in large part on his tech literacy, and he's putting a team in place that will probably take a more activist role in promoting the wider adoption of advanced networking technologies, something that most of us IEEE members would probably like to see. We see the evidence for this in the various pots of money created by the stimulus plan for broadband, health IT, and Smart Grids. Grants and subsidies can go a long way toward improving infrastructure if they're administered properly, and I think we can assume that we all want to see that too.

When politicians mess with technology bad things can happen on the regulatory side, so we all need to keep an eye out for overly zealous attempts to manage business models. I've met most of the Obama tech team, and like and respect all of them, but there are a few among them who've adopted viewpoints that concern me. There's a tendency in Washington to confuse cheerleading with technical awareness. We'll dig into that later.

In subsequent posts, I'll cover some recent events in which I've taken part, and I'll cover some of the topics I've mentioned above. Let me close by thanking Harry Goldstein and the Tech Talk crew for giving me this platform.

East Meets West in Corporate Culture?

By Suhas Sreedhar

Outsourcing jobs to third-world companies has been a fairly polarizing issue in the past, and those ardently in favor of it and against it will probably continue to debate its merits for many years to come. But for all practical purposes the issue is passé. Outsourcing has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. A more interesting question is, what impact can it have on corporate culture?

At Paprikaas Interactive, an animation studio based in Bangalore, India, I found an interesting answer. Outsourcing has the potential to help to combine the best of eastern and western business practices, resulting in companies that are competent as well as creative.

[Please see Animation Nation, Part I: Dreamworks Goes to Bangalore and Animation Nation Part II: Bollywood Sets Its Sights on Feature Films.]

Many offshore subcontractors, especially ones in the IT industry, are technically skilled, but they mostly operate within a stringent, chain-of-command structure. This makes some sense since it's the big client companies that are the arbiters of the end product. However, a rigid structure does have its drawbacks. While many Western companies encourage employees to express their opinions and speak their minds, employees of Indian companies tend to remain reticent and deferential to their superiors. This becomes a problem, especially in creative fields like animation, where the final product is a combination of the best efforts of many individuals.

At Paprikaas, the executives seemed determined to change this mindset. When I met with Creative Director Veerendra Patil, he told me that while he's proud of his employees' technical skill, discipline, and punctuality, most of them treat their work just as another 9-to-5 job. They take one-hour lunch breaks at exactly the same time every day and always look to their superiors to make decisions and set deadlines.

Patil wants the employees to take "creative ownership" of their work, meaning that they'd stop seeing their projects merely as tasks to complete and instead view them as pieces of art they can personally be proud of. It also means that they'd set their own reasonable deadlines and budget their time appropriately in order to meet them.

The same goes for the supervisors in the company, who are being encouraged to take on more responsibility and make more decisions themselves, instead of constantly going up the chain for answers. In order to help catalyze this change in attitude, supervisors are required to alternate between working on projects and training new employees, the latter of which gives them greater experience in being in a top advisory role.

Finally, the relationship between colleagues and bosses is also something Paprikaas execs want to change by promoting more discussions and debates about ideas and encouraging artists to speak out and challenge their superiors, as long as their intent is to help create the best product possible.

If Paprikaas succeeds, it could represent an interesting merger of corporate cultures. Combining quality and discipline with individualism and free expression sounds like a promising formula. But can it happen? And will it necessarily translate into a better bottom line? For Indian animation to thrive on its own, it might have to.

Suhas Sreedhar is a freelance journalist who has previously written for IEEE Spectrum about the future of music. He recently did some blogging and webcasting while working as the assistant director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More