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Big Blue Combined with Nanotech Reassures Newbies

There use to be an old business adage: â''No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.â'' I guess that phrase was popular about the time that IBM ruled the roost for electronic typewriters.

But ever since Microsoft did there little end around on IBM and got the whole OS and software business while IBM--with egg dripping down its faces--was left competing with the rest of the world on the production of metal and plastic boxes, itâ''s not so clear cut that IBM is still such a reliable business decision.

But nations new to nanotechnology and eager not to screw up are somehow assured by calling upon IBM to answer all their nanotechnology anxieties.

Case in point Saudi Arabia are calling upon IBM to help sort out how nanotechnology can be applied to improving water desalination, solar energy and petrochemical processes.

Oh yes, IBM has a storied history in nanotech, no doubt: Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer and the creation of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), and then Don Eigler using an STM to spell out IBM with xenon atoms. Great stuff, ground breaking.

But nanotechnology for water, for solar power and the petrochemical business?

I am not sure I would be banging on IBMâ''s door for advice or solutions on nanotechnology for these areas, but I have to confess the incantation of the acronym â''IBMâ'' sounds a lot more impressive than the names of companies that are actually focused on these areas.

NASA: Hubble Telescope Fixed and Ready to Perform

After four weeks of head scratching and trial and error, NASA engineers have finished a workaround on the electronics onboard the Hubble Space Telescope that should enable the science satellite to resume observing the universe.

The space agency posted a statement yesterday saying that the Hubble's crippled control and communications backup unit finally responded properly to instructions sent to it by ground controllers. This clears the way for handlers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to initiate the first of the Hubble's science instruments tomorrow.

The orbiting platform went dark on 27 September when a component known as the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system failed after 18 years in service in the cold of space. That left NASA with the problem of starting up a parallel version of the control system for the first time by sending a complex series of commands from the ground. It took the agency's engineers a couple of weeks to figure out how to get everything working fully (please see NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope), but they seem to have now overcome some initial setbacks.

The proof will come when the Goddard team instructs the platform's Wide Field Planetary Camera to begin aiming at a distant object and transmitting images on Saturday. If that goes well, the second test will come next week when they attempt to restart the Advanced Camera for Surveys for solar observations.

A committee quickly assembled to study the Hubble failure reported its preliminary findings to the space agency yesterday, as well. The review group, headed by the chief of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, John Campbell, issued the following analysis:

Regarding the sudden halt of the spacecraft computer, the team concluded that three separate events occurring with near-simultaneity were responses to a single triggering event. The triggering event was most likely caused by a self-clearing short-circuit, or a transient open-circuit, in the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system. One or more such events would not be highly improbable in hardware inactive since 1990, and will not harm the telescope, although it could cause another interruption of science operations.

If all goes well over the next week, the Hubble should be able to resume a portion of its historic observations of the cosmos. NASA, which had been planning to send astronauts to the telescope this month to upgrade its equipment, will then proceed with a shuttle mission early next year to replace the compromised control system along with new parts for other aging components.

Wish them luck.

Results of the San Francisco analog shutdown test

11.Dig.TV.Blog.gifOn Tuesday evening at 6:15 pm, 18 San Francisco broadcast stations briefly replaced their standard analog television programming with a notice informing viewers that their television sets are not ready for Februaryâ''s digital television transition. Stations promoted a variety of numbers to call for help, including three manned call centers, an automated number, and the national FCC help line.

Besides acting as a wake-up call for consumers who have, so far, ignored the upcoming analog shut-down, the test gave call centers and television stations an idea about what to expect when the real shut-down happens.

Hereâ''s an analysis of what happened, provided to IEEE Spectrum by Public Broadcasting Service affiliate KQED.

In the San Francisco market, 209,000 households received over-the-air television only (that is, they donâ''t subscribe to cable or satellite television). Many more households have second or third televisions that rely on over-the-air signals.

Of those 209,000 households, 40,000 were watching television during the test (perhaps they should have run the test during Survivor instead of during the evening news).

More than 2500 people called one of the phone lines during or shortly after the test. The live call centers were jammed until 6:30 p.m. Callers asked about the coupon program, about getting technical assistance, or about their own particular signal issues.

Kudos to the local stations for going beyond the public service announcements that have been running for months, and tests like this will likely motivate people to get their converter boxes. But getting the consumer out to the store to get a converter box is only the first step; actually making digital television work in all of these 209,000 households is an entirely different game, one in which nobody seems to be keeping score. I wish the FCC would poll a sampling of those ordering converter coupons and find out if they successfully made the switch to digital and how much it really cost them, or if they just gave up and are now paying a monthly subscription fee to a cable or satellite company.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

This is just a test: San Francisco TV stations shutdown analog broadcasts tonight

11.Dig.TV.Blog.gif

Broadcasters around the country arenâ''t just relying on public service announcements to warn viewers about the upcoming analog shutdown. Theyâ''re not stupid, they know that the vast amount of TV-viewers ignore advertisements, and even the analog TV viewers that that are watching donâ''t realize that the ad warning them that some TV viewers may have to take action to prepare for the February 17th analog shutdown is talking about them.

Sometimes, you have to really shake people to get them to pay attention. And tonight, San Francisco Bay Area broadcasters are going to try to shake analog TV viewers up. At 6:15 pm, local TV stations will briefly replace their analog signals with a still image warning viewers that they are not prepared for Feb. 17th and need to take action. This isn't trivial, broadcast engineers had to rig up a way to send a different program feed to the analog transmitters than they do the digital, cable, and satellite transmitters.

So far, brilliant. (The Bay Area is not alone, at least 80 such mock shutdowns have happened so far around the U.S.).

The image will display a link to DTV.gov, where folks can go online to learn all about the shutdown, along with a phone number for a regional call center. Explains broadcast station KGO: â''three beeps will be heard and an on-screen graphic will appear on our channel informing the viewer if their television is "ready" or "not ready" for the digital transition.â''

Here's where I get worried. Iâ''m glad theyâ''re including the phone number; I just hope that it goes quickly to a real person, not an endless voicemail menu, and it's a person who can go beyond telling the people to get a converter box and actually walk them through the process. Because the folks I know that will be most affected by the shutdown, that is, the elderly, donâ''t necessarily jump on line whenever they see those three little Wâ''s. They donâ''t necessarily have computers. They need to have a conversation with someone who is patient, and knowledgeable, and can in one phone call order their coupon and, perhaps, put them in touch with a volunteer to hook up their system for them. The video below, showing an elderly person struggling to follow conversion directions, is meant as humor, but itâ''s not that far off base. (This video is staged, but Consumer Electronics Association has launched a contest for the best DTV conversion video posted on YouTube, suggesting people converting family and friends record their experiences.)

Because the more and more I think about the day that analog TV dies, the more I realize that coupon programs and public service announcements and even test shutdowns arenâ''t enough. The Wilmington, NC, fire department, which in September went out to residentsâ'' homes and helped them hook up converter boxes, isnâ''t enough.

We are going to need volunteers in every city, knowledgeable volunteers, who donâ''t mind running out to Radio Shack to pick up that extra cable or signal booster that didnâ''t come with the TV converter; who can answer a hotline and help the people that canâ''t figure out which cable goes where. Could it be that we needâ''IEEE members?

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

One Shuttle Rolls Back From Launch Pad, One Rolls Out to Launch Pad

Caught up in the midst of recent problems with the Hubble Space Telescope, the U.S. space agency finds itself coming and going at the same time.

Today, NASA rolled the shuttle Atlantis back into its protective hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla., from its position at Launch Pad 39A. It was originally to have flown into space last week to make repairs on the Hubble (please see Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble). Ironically, the orbiting observatory shut down unexpectedly on 27 September when the primary computer system controlling its science equipment and transmitting data from them failed. Since then, NASA has been trying to remotely initiate the system's back-up unit to operate the telescope's instruments (please see NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope). This has caused the space agency to postpone the latest Atlantis mission, STS-125, until next February at the earliest.

Meanwhile, shuttle Endeavour, parked in the interim at Launch Pad 39B, will be moved Saturday to the now vacant Pad 39A atop a massive vehicle crawler. Endeavour's upcoming mission, STS-126, will carry new crew members to the International Space Station. According to a NASA press release, Endeavour is slated to lift off on 14 November.

U.S. States Get Graded on Reverse Electricity Metering

By common consent, rapid adoption of renewable energy resources by homes and small businesses depends on the availability of whatâ''s called net meteringâ''the ability, technically and legally, to sell surplus energy back into the grid. Only if local jurisdictions guarantee that option will homes and small businesses find it profitable to install solar panels, erect a small wind turbine, or drill to tap geothermal energy. A new report from the Network for New Energy Choices assesses the state of the union in terms of net metering, grading progress or regression in all 50 U.S. states.

The report finds that three states in particularâ''Arizona, Illinois, and Floridaâ''have made major progress in setting standards and rules for net metering, and that 15 others have made significant progress. Texas, in a section about â''worst practices,â'' is singled out for criticism, its having formulated a progressive law only to let special interests torpedo it. New Jerseyâ''s standards and rules get extensive attention in a section about â''best practices.â''

Some states are taken to task for setting unduly low caps on the size of electrical systems eligible to feed back electricity into the grid, and for creating unnecessary bureaucratic impediments. New Jersey is praised for simplifying procedures, eschewing unnecessary safety requirements, allowing relatively large entities to feed back electricity, and for adopting model interconnection standards developed by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Five Things You Didnâ¿¿t Know About Nanotechnology

I donâ''t know about you, but at the top of my list of things I didnâ''t know about nanotechnology is that the menâ''s magazine (or is it just a website) AskMen.com, famous for its lists, added a list for â''5 Things You Didnâ''t Know: Nanotechnologyâ''.

So, nanotechnology joins similar lists on Star Trek and Howard Stern. Somehow this all seems fitting, especially if you read the article, which is an eccentric mash up of some misconceptions about molecular nanotechnology, surveys on how culture perceives nanotechnology, video game fantasy fulfillment, and a smattering of some real science.

With articles like this, itâ''s a wonder that the American male is able to formulate any coherent thoughts.

For example, we are presented with â''Nanotechnology is being used against the Talibanâ'' as one of the five things we didnâ''t know about nanotechnology. However, when you actually read the example, nanotechnology is not being employed for this purpose at all, miniature (six-inch scale) robots are being used. Umhhâ'¿thatâ''s not nanotechnology!

But not to fear we are told that someday nanotechnology can be used in military applications, and it will be possible for some of us to live out a real-world â''Haloâ'' video game.

Thatâ''s an odd interest but it is a menâ''s magazine so puerile distractions are paramount, I suppose. But it gets really strange when the article delivers ominous warnings of â''nanoweaponsâ''.

Nanoweapons are easy to build, conceal, maintain, and deliver, which makes them almost impossible to track and regulate. Furthermore, nanoweapons become obsolete almost immediately, forcing nations toward perpetual development in an inevitable and unstable arms race, unless a conscious global understanding can be achieved -- and one can only hope that the latter will be the case.

Based on the articleâ''s cited references, this concept of nanoweapons likely came from here. Check it out yourself, I prefer to refrain from further comment.

But getting back to the article, it seems both strange and somehow appropriate that an article on nanotechnology that is slanted so as to gain the interest of a men's magazine audience would end with encouragement to greater global understanding and world peace. Cognitive dissonance exemplified.

NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope

NASA is ready to perform a workaround to get the recently crippled Hubble Space Telescope back in working order.

As we wrote a few weeks ago (see Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble), the Hubble is dark due to a failure in its Science Instrument Control and Data Handling (SIC&DH) unit. The malfunction took out the data communications system's Side A circuit, for reasons unknown (other than old age). So the U.S. space agency has compiled a procedure to activate its Side B circuit by remote control from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., later today.

According to a NASA press release today, aeronautics engineers are in the process of booting up Side B and readying it to work with the orbiting telescope's instruments. The Hubble team has put the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer back into safe mode after waking them temporarily to test them with the Side B instrument controls.

The space agency said engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore should complete their review of these "internal exposures" by noon (EDST) on Friday.

"This procedure involves collecting and comparing baseline exposures previously supported by Side A of the SIC&DH to new exposures supported by Side B," wrote NASA today. "This review will be one last check of the 'transparency' (non-impact) of switching to the redundant spacecraft electronics the Hubble team activated on Wednesday."

The head of the Hubble Space Telescope Systems Management Office, Art Whipple, simplified the complicated process: "This is something that is a little out of the norm of what you would do around the house, but it's probably not unlike what an IT professional might do with an office network."

Keep your fingers crossed, space enthusiasts.

Mexican Oil Security an Issue for U.S. Too

An article posted this week by Energy Centralâ''s Energy Pulse draws attention to unaddressed security problems facing Mexicoâ''s oil industry. Oil revenues account for about a quarter of Mexicoâ''s exports and 40 percent of the governmentâ''s income; since nationalization of the industry in 1938, management of Pemexâ''more or less the fifth largest petroleum company in the worldâ''has always been an immensely sensitive issue. But itâ''s not just a local problem. Mexico is the worldâ''s sixth largest exporter of oil and a major supplier to the United States. If there were a disruption in one of Pemexâ''s oil fields, the results would likely show up at U.S. gasoline pumps before appearing at Mexicoâ''s ownâ''where, by the way, prices arenâ''t posted, evidently because they hardly ever change.

For the last few years, output has been declining at Mexicoâ''s immense offshore Cantarell field, which after Saudi Arabiaâ''s Ghawar field is the worldâ''s most productive. Daily national production is two thirds what it was four years ago. This implies, the Energy Pulse article points out, that the future production will have to shift to geographically more extensive onshore fields, which will be more vulnerable to attack by local insurgents or international terrorists. Yet the country has no coherent plan to protect the fields, and monitoring of the countryâ''s airspace is notoriously leakyâ''a matter of longstanding complaint from the Yankees to the North, who have worried mainly about drug smuggling.

What to do? Closer cooperation with Mexicoâ''s sometimes overbearing neighbor to the North could expose Mexico to greater threats from insurgents and terrorists and make its oil fields less rather than more secure. Yet itâ''s hard to see how Mexico would be able to secure its airspace and strengthen border controls without greater cooperation with the United States. So Mexican energy security policy will be a conundrum and a challenge not just for Mexicoâ''s leaders but for the next U.S. president as well.

Last spring, when Mexican president Felipe Calderon sought to allow more private investment in the oil industry, he encountered sharp protests that emptied the countryâ''s Congress. During a visit, I found the plaza in front of the Congress building eerily empty, and police warned me away. Graffiti asserted the sanctity of constitutional provisions that declare the countryâ''s oil resources sacrosanct and prohibit foreign investment.

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Nanotechâ¿¿s Application Success Comes Down to the Eye of the Beholder

Managing expectations can be one of the toughest jobs for any emerging technology.

For nanotechnology, having its coming out party just as the Internet and telecommunication bubbles burst, the job of keeping expectations realistic proved nearly impossible.

Of course, what has become commercial in the last seven years since the launching of the NNI may seem extremely significant to some but remain inconsequential to others.

A case in point comes from the Helena Independent Record. The reporter here poses the question: â''What has nanotechnology done for you lately?â''

Apparently, â''the mediaâ'' (arenâ''t they always to blame?) put images of â''supercomputers mounted in wristwatches and X-ray machines that hang from your doctorâ''s neck like a stethoscopeâ'' into our heads. Then, darn it, nanotechnology never delivered on these promises.

I never saw these application examples before, but if they were reported they might have been merely illustrative rather than predictions somewhat like â''the mobile phone so small an ant could use it.â''

Anyway, nanotechnology has finally struck upon something useful for the Independent Record reporter: insulating paint. Apparently, this insulating paint is quite effective at covering plywood sheds containing hot water tanks. Or your homeâ''s ceiling even if you have insulation in the attic.

So if youâ''re the type who spills everything on your clothes, you may have been satisfied with nanotechnology all the way back to the introduction of â''nano pantsâ''. But now if you have a shed in the back yard that needs insulating, nanotechnology has finally delivered.

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