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Battle Lines Are Drawn in Nanotech Regulations

Not too surprisingly the views on regulations for nanotechnology are drawn pretty clearly along political lines of NGOs versus industry.

The opposing forces are clearly delineated here. You have the NGOs essentially in favor of a moratorium on nanotechnology and industry seeking more clarity on the entire issue of regulations on nanotech.

There really hasnâ''t been much movement along these lines over the last several years. Maybe research that answers some of the outstanding questions should be emphasized here to break the stalemate.

Mission to Search for Earth-like Planets Leaves Earth

The Kepler science spacecraft has successfully lifted off from Florida and begun its multi-year mission to look for planets similar to our own in the galaxy.

Kepler blasted into space atop a Delta II rocket at 10:49 pm EST from Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.

The US $600 million observatory will use a large electronic camera to survey a swath of the Milky Way for so-called exoplanets transiting through the light coming from stars much like our sun but far, far away.

NASA said today that the survey field contains about 100 000 stars of the appropriate magnitude. Kepler will travel through space in a solar orbit trailing Earth, which will enable it to maintain its focus on targets selected by astronomers, something the Hubble telescope is unable to do.

The objects Kepler "sees" will be detected by a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices to record changes in brightness of 20 parts per million in stars that are thousands of light years away in a portion of the sky visible terrestrially in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. Then scientists will subject the recorded data to extensive testing to determine the characteristics of the discovered planets.

"We certainly won't find E.T., but we might find E.T.'s home by looking at all of these stars," Bill Boruki, Kepler's principal scientist, said yesterday.

"This is a historical mission, it's not just a science mission," NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler said during the prelaunch news conference. "It really attacks some very basic human questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked the question: Are we alone?"

For more on Kepler's mission, see NASA Planet Hunter to Search Out Other Earths in the current issue of Spectrum Online.

As Semicon Sales Sag, AMD Spins off Its Fab Operations

The global economic slump has forced chipmakers into uncharted waters, causing major manufacturers to set new courses.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) announced Monday that its members' revenues sank again in January, dropping 11.9 percent in just a month. The trade group for the big microprocessor makers said sales for member firms such as AMD, Intel, and Texas Instruments fell from US $21.5 billion a year ago to $15.3 billion in January, a decline of 28.6 percent.

A spokesman noted that January is traditionally a slow month for chipmakers but worried over the lingering economic malaise the world over. "Sales declined across the entire range of semiconductor products, as sales of important demand drivers such as personal computers, cell phones, automobiles, and consumer items remained under pressure," commented SIA President George Scalise.

"This is the worst recession the semiconductor industry has seen since its inception," Sean M. Maloney, the chief sales and marketing officer at Intel, said at a news conference Monday.

Hoping that focusing on its key competencies will turn around its business, AMD this week spun off its own fabrication facilities into a new venture called GlobalFoundries, to be jointly owned by AMD and the Advanced Technology Investment Co. (ATIC) of Abu Dhabi.

In a press release yesterday, the new management of GlobalFoundries said it plans "to drive profound change and expand opportunities" in the chip sector. It noted that the new manufacturing firm becomes the only U.S.-based global foundry services provider currently in operation.

"With two committed joint venture partners providing strong technology and capital resources, our company brings a unique set of global capabilities to the market that will enable our customers to fully unlock their potential to innovate," Doug Grose, the new CEO of GlobalFoundries, stated.

The new fab firm said going forward it will service the manufacturing needs of AMD but will also offer its technologies to third-party customers through its high-volume foundry operations.

It added that GlobalFoundries is proceeding with plans to expand its Dresden, Germany, manufacturing lines by bringing a second 300-mm manufacturing facility with bulk silicon capabilities online later this year. The company also plans to start construction on a new $4.2 billion plant in Saratoga County, N.Y., in 2009.

"Despite the current economic climate, this is an industry with tremendous opportunities for long-term growth and innovation," said Waleed Al Mokarrab, the chairman of ATIC. "Through its global footprint, world-class technology know-how, and access to state-of-the-art research and development, we believe GlobalFoundries is well positioned to challenge for market leadership in this competitive industry."

Pop Culture and Nanotech: A Telling Barometer

Perhaps the largest landmark for nanotech in the landscape of popular culture has been Michael Crichtonâ''s 2002 work, â''Preyâ''. What may be painfully familiar to anyone who has followed anything to do with nanotechnology over the past seven years, or has read the book, the plot details how a medical imaging technology enabled by nanobots leads to great swarms of nanobots devouring everything around them and creating a â''grey gooâ''.

One argument goes that this book put such a pall over nanotechnology--at least the kind of nanotechnology that involves nanobots--that when it came time to fund and launch a national nanotechnology initiative, the ideas of molecular nanotechnology with assemblers and table-top factories were abandoned in favor of nanoscale material science.

Well, nanoscale material science is getting its comeuppance at the hands of popular culture. Thanks to the â''unofficial blogâ'' for the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California Santa Barbara, I was informed of a new television program in the US called â''Eleventh Hourâ''. In last weekâ''s episode â''a slew of Massachusetts residentsâ'¿were getting hit by lightening well above what we'd expect by chance alone. The source of the problem was traced to a fictional company working on "nanofilaments" that were found to be growing throughout people's skin and therefore making them more conductive.â''

There you have it. No more are nanobots going to devour the planet leaving a grey goo in their wake but we are all going to mysteriously get nanofilaments in our skin and lightening will strike less randomly and more regularly.

You know the fictional future I would prefer to actually see would be the grey goo.

A credit check for online honesty

Iâ''ve sold a few things on craigslist, but not a lot. Instead, I use a much smaller, private, local mail list, even though I canâ''t always find a buyer there, because it makes me a little nervous to deal with people that I donâ''t know, and that none of my friends know.

So Purewire Trust, a web security product from Purewire Inc., Atlanta, Ga., introduced at Demo 09 this week in Palm Springs, definitely got my attention. I wasnâ''t the only one, Demo 09 featured an audience comments stream, and the flow of comments sped up dramatically during the Purewire demo: â''best idea yetâ'' â''credit report for people.â''

Indeed, thatâ''s exactly what Purewire is offering: to check people, as well as places and things on the web, and see if they are legitimate. It will eventually include reviews, much in way Amazon marketplace and eBay use reviews to rate sellers, but it doesnâ''t rely on reviews, instead, it analyzes all sorts of web data associated with a personâ''s name or email address to determine if they are a real person who doesnâ''t do bad things online. The service is currently free, at Itâ''s brand new today, so I wasnâ''t completely surprised that it didnâ''t find me yet, I havenâ''t done a lot of online transactions. It did find Spectrumâ''s web site, and, Iâ''m happy to say, trusts us.

If this application turns out to be reliable and effective, it wonâ''t only make people using craigs list more comfortable; company cofounder Paul Judge envisions the service being used by potential internet dates and future employersâ''a possibility that might make people think twice about not completing an eBay transaction as promised.

Watching both the speaker and the audience

screencapt1.jpgAt the Demo 09 conference, held in Palm Desert this week, attendees, both in person and those watching a sometimes glitchy live feed over the internet, werenâ''t just watching the demonstrations on stage; they were simultaneously tracking the thoughts that popped into the heads of other audience members as they, too, watched those demonstrations. It was as if cartoon thought bubbles were popping up over the audience (though it was a little odd not knowing if the thoughts were coming from the room or from someone watching the Internet feed across the world).

This isnâ''t brand new; I talked about monitoring twitter during the Techcrunch conference last fall for a similar experience. But at Demo 09 it was an official conference tool, in the form of a Facebook application that ran alongside the video feed (visible on the laptops of many conference attendees), occasionally appeared on the big screens that flanked the stage, and, during panel sessions, was monitored by moderators, who used it as input for questions.

screencapt2.jpgAnd, instead of it being distracting, as has sometimes been my experience, the comment stream, for the most part, was adding value. First, I could get a sense of how well the audience liked the idea simply by the pace of the comment flow; when something good was happening, the flow picked up; when a presentation was boring or made little sense, it slowed to a crawl. (That says something about this particular audience, that was faster to say good things than to say bad things, though bad things indeed did get said. Picking on people was generally not accepted; I noted one comment, for example, after a few harsh ones: â''lighten up guys, they are tech guys, not presenters, give them a chance.â'') Next, I appreciated the perspective the comments it provided; an idea might have been new to me, but if it werenâ''t truly new, a commenter was sure to point out that it had been done before, and when, and by whom. Finally, it was simply fun to have my own thoughts confirmed, whether it was â''thatâ''s the best idea yetâ'' or â''love that red shirt.â''

Even good tools can be abused, however, and late in the second day some people started using the comment stream to promote their own products or companies; it went on for a bit before the crowd blasted them and at least one or two humbly apologized.

A touchscreen netbook, and other products from Demo 09 that make sense in the new economy

gallery-13.jpgDemo 09, held in Palm Desert, Calif., this week, was a little smaller than usual (about 40 instead of more than 60 companies, some 500 instead of 700 attendees), and clearly the economic downturn was on everyoneâ''s minds. The new economy definitely changed things; very few new businesses, for example, are planning on supporting themselves through advertising; subscription fees and flat out sales of software or hardware are back in style. And most demonstrators had an economic hook to their pitch; though they must have started developing their products before the economy tanked, most could explain why their products were right for the new economy. Some even look like they could be right for me.

Top of the â''right for the economy, right for meâ'' list was the TouchBook, from Always Innovating Inc. (see photo, above). Itâ''s essentially a netbook, that is, a stripped down computer intended basically for email and web browsing. And, while Iâ''ve been seeing a lot of netbooks lately, theyâ''d left me flat; I just didnâ''t get why I would buy a computer that didnâ''t do everything that I do on my laptop. But with the TouchBook, I got it. I got that if I spent $399 for this computer (or $299 without the keyboard) that I wouldnâ''t have to buy another $1500 laptop to keep family harmony, as my three kids find that more and more they all desperately need their shared computers at the same time; instead, urgent Facebook updates or catching up on the last episode of Survivor could happen on the TouchBook. Plus maybe, with a touchscreen computer that includes an accelerometer and plays iPhone games, my kids would stop nagging for an iPhone as well; more money saved. I got that it only weighs .9 kilograms (.45 without the keyboard), and that would make for a very light load. And OK, the way the screen pops off of the keyboard to become a tablet computer was very cool, as was the user interface, that lets you spin through applications or web sites with a finger stroke.

Several enhanced email applications also made sense to me. Pixetell from Ontier Inc., Portland, Oregon, lets you narrate and annotate screen images, drop in webcam recordings, add other attachments, then send that multimedia package as a regular email. GoView from Citrix Online, Santa Barbara, Calif., does essentially the same thing, but only deals with annotating and narrating screen images, rather than letting you package a vast array of different media. Iâ''m not sure I need the extra functions of Pixetell, so Iâ''ll have to try both applications to see which one would work better for me. Both are intended to reduce the need for in person IMG_2662.JPGmeetings as well as web conferences. Using email in a different way was Cc:Betty, from Cc:Betty Inc., Palo Alto, Calif. Cc:Betty sorts and organizes files, events, and contacts by analyzing email; basically, a replacement for a personal assistant. Iâ''ve never had a personal assistant, but Iâ''m planning on trying it anyway.

Symantec Corp., Cupertino, Calif., demonstrated a tool called Project Guru targeted at all the tech-savvy folks who find themselves doing tech support for friends and familyâ''so if holiday travel is down next year, the relatives who had been saving up their computer problems for Thanksgiving afternoon wonâ''t be stuck. Project Guru is a downloadable application for consumers that lets them troubleshoot a friendâ''s computer remotely, just like an IT department does for its employees. Symantec didnâ''t announce the productâ''s pricing structure or exact plans for when it will be available.

Finally, I have to mention Skout Out, though itâ''s not exactly a tool that would apply to my life. Skout Out (photo right), from Skout Inc. of San Francisco, Calif., is a giant touchscreen, that looks somewhat like an iPhone, and is intended to help out people who have spent way too much time doing online social networking to cope with a real-world bar scene. It flashes up photos of available people in the immediate vicinity (either the bar in which it is installed or nearby), and, for a dollar (a real dollar, inserted as you would in a vending machine), you can dedicate a song to someone, offer to buy them a drink, or hit them up with a pickup line selected from a menu. The company says itâ''s absolutely a tool for the new economy, because when business is down, dating is up.

It's Square Root Day (All Over Again)

It's 3 March 2009 (or 3/3/09), so that means that it's Square Root Day!

As pointed out in numerous media outlets, today is a big deal for math lovers everywhere. Why else would a prestigious publication like Scientific American cover it in a blog entry?

As SciAm's John Matson points out, the "unofficial holiday comes around but nine times a century, when the numbers of the calendar align so that the month and day are each equal to the square root of the year as expressed in two-digit form."

The last Square Root Day fell on 2/2/04 and the next will occur on 4/4/16 (and so on and so forth moving forward).

So get out there and party tonight, number buffs. After all, you've got seven years to recover.

U.S. Federal Budget Has Plenty of Room for Space Program

When President Barack Obama signs the Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2009, he will approve increases in funding for NASA that were endorsed by his predecessor, including money pledged to keep the controversial moon program going, to the tune of nearly US $18 billion. But that's only a start to the extra revenue set to stream toward the American space program.

Although the 2009 budget is officially a holdover of the Bush Administration, the new president could have pressed for changes before the Congress passed the legislation. He chose not to, leaving in place many earmarks coveted by lawmakers, among which are funds for several programs wanted by the space agency.

The most notable of the NASA requests is money to continue work on a project to return to the moon and then continue exploring nearby planets, known as the Constellation program and outlined in a plan called 2004 Presidentâ''s Vision for Space Exploration. That plan calls for NASA to begin new missions to the moon beginning in 2020.

The current NASA budget, however, pales before the Obama Administration's guidelines for next year's funding.

Unveiled last Thursday, the proposed Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2010 outline contains provisions to add another billion to NASA's yearly funding, which has already been granted a boost of nearly a billion dollars from the economic stimulus package Pres. Obama signed into law recently.

All the additional money, though, may not be enough to extend the life of America's aging shuttle fleet, experts observed. A report in Florida Today notes that the 2010 budget appears to include only enough to keep NASA's shuttles flying through the end of next year (with a possible extra mission added to the schedule if all goes well) before the Shuttle Transport System is phased out. Still, one administration insider the publication spoke with indicated that there may be reserves to afford extra shuttle flights when the full 2010 budget plan is released in April.

"I think that we will be talking in more detail about how we envision the plan working going forward with regard to the shuttle," Rob Nabors, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told Florida Today, which closely follows Cape Canaveral. "One of the things we are planning on doing is evaluating all of the assumptions underlying the previous administration's budget, the budget that we're inheriting. And I think at this point, we will have more to say about that in April."

Meanwhile, an article in the Huntsville Times focused on the role that a local congressman played in delivering funding to the area's rocket industry, which provides NASA with its launch vehicles. Rep. Parker Griffith (D-Ala.) demurred, though, when pressed by the newspaper, saying that the increase was due to "NASA employees' reputation for excellence."

"I am pleased that this administration is showing a commitment to the space program in both words and actions ... and I am very encouraged by the president's goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020," Griffith commented. "An $18.7 billion investment is promising, but it is just the first step in many that must take place."

However, the Houston Chronicle concluded that the budget numbers represented a "political blow" to the local economy, which relies prominently on the presence of NASA's mission control facilities. In a news item from last Thursday, the paper reported that the 2010 federal budget outline "dashed the hopes of NASA backers" keen on keeping the shuttle program intact in the future. Even though overall funding for the space agency was increased, the Chronicle said that Houston lawmakers "had desperately sought more money to bridge a projected five-year gap in manned space operations between the shuttle's retirement and the initial flight of the Orion spacecraft."

Still, the Houston paper admitted that the "mixed bag" funding for NASA included not only more money for manned space operations but also for space-based research on global climate change and aeronautics research on aviation safety, air traffic control, fuel efficiency, and noise and emissions reduction.

It quoted Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese as saying that the Obama budget proposal "reflects the administration's desire for a robust and innovative agency aligned with the presidentâ''s goals of advancing our nationâ''s scientific, educational, economic and security interests."

It will be interesting to see how all the money flowing NASA's way will be turned into sustainable benefits to the American economy and standing in the world going forward. After all, it's a model that has worked well before.

NASA: You Name the Next Space Station Module

The U.S. space agency is holding a contest online to decide on the nickname for the next American module to be added to the International Space Station (ISS). You can vote on a name by visiting the agency's Help NASA Name Node 3 page on the Web.

The suggested names prepared by NASA are Earthrise, Legacy, Serenity, and Venture; but you can also vote for a name of your own choosing.

Until now, NASA has simply referred to the next American module as Node 3, which will contain much of the future life-support resources needed to serve an expanded crew of six aboard the ISS and will also house the European Space Agency's Cupola observation module.

NASA's current plans call for the shuttle Endeavour to carry the newly named Node 3 to the ISS in December as the centerpiece of the STS-130 mission. Astronauts will then attach the cupola and the node to the port side of the Unity Node, where it will be integrated into the ISS by the space station's crew.

Node 3 will be used to house equipment for the overall Environmental Control and Life Support Systems on the ISS. These include: the Oxygen Generation System, which will recycle used water into hydrogen and oxygen; the Atmosphere Revitalization System, which will scrub carbon dioxide from the air onboard; the Water Recovery System, which will purify waste water; and the waste and hygiene compartment, which will offer the crew sophisticated bathroom resources.

For the naming contest, which will run until 20 March, NASA requests that voters bear in mind the spirit of the space station's international mission of peaceful exploration. It notes that previous ISS modules have reflected that spirit in names conveyed by other nation's to their habitat contributions, such as Kibo (or Hope) from Japan and Zarya (or Dawn) from Russia.

Someone may come up with a better name than the ones suggested by NASA (and mount a huge write-in campaign for it), but we at Spectrum Online think that the contest is going to be a slam-dunk for the one entry that stands out in the minds of techies everywhere: Serenity.

No contest.


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