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Tracking the Digital TV Transition

digtv120-thumb.gifSince 17 Februaryâ''s date certain for analog TV shutdown became date uncertain and then 12 June, the digital TV transition has dropped from newspaper headlines. But things have indeed been happening.

For one, some 750 stations around the U.S. have already killed their analog signals; thatâ''s a good chunk of the nationâ''s 1759 broadcast stations. Continuing dual analog and digital broadcasts costs moneyâ''simply powering the additional transmitter costs something like ten thousand dollars a month; thatâ''s a lot for a small station in tough economic times. Most of these are non-network stations in small markets, but not all. In San Diego, for example, the shutdown included the ABC, CBS, and Fox affiliates. Major networks also went dark in Santa Barbara, Calif., Madison, Wisc., and Providence, R.I. The call centers reported that most people having trouble getting digital broadcasts were elderly, some simply didnâ''t know how to work the converter boxes, but some would need to repoint their antennas (wonder how that went on Madisonâ''s icy roofs) and others would need new antennas.

The FCC has released an online tool that will help viewers figure out, based on their zip code, what stations they are likely to be able to receive. This doesnâ''t take into account local obstacles like big trees or tall buildings, but it does look at some terrain factors and can help you figure out if you have a least a chance of getting the new digital signal. If you do, you can then plug your zip code into the tool at antennapoint.com; and select a group of stations you can receive (I had a choice between stations to the north and stations to the south; south is closer, but north has more channels); this tool will tell you how far you are from the transmitters. That's something that's useful to know if you go antenna-shopping; you'll need to weed through selections by range. (I just ordered a new, extra-long-range antenna from Amazon; still pursuing my quest to get more than two digital channels before the shutdown).

In terms of good news from the digital transition, thanks to funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus bill), the converter coupon program has cleared its waiting list and is continuing to process new applications. It has also changed the rule that if you order two coupons and they expired youâ''re out of luck; you are now allowed to reapply. As of April 1, just over 55 million coupons were requested, over 54 million were mailed, and nearly 27 million were redeemed. There is no word on how many of the people who purchased converter boxes have attempted to hook up those boxes, how many were successful and are happily watching digital televison, or how many former broadcast television viewers simply gave up. Iâ''d like to seem some real independent research conducted on this transition; call center reports donâ''t tell you much.

For more of Spectrum's coverage of the digital transition, see Special Report: The Day Analog TV Dies.

North Korean Satellite Enters "Subaquatic Orbit"

Despite reports from Pyongyang its communications satellite is alive and well in orbit and transmitting â''data and patriotic songs," there's no North Korean satellite in space. (At best, according to Arms Control Wonk, "the highly unique North Korean satellite has entered subaquatic orbit in the Pacific Ocean"). But over at Danger Room, former Jane's Defence Weekly reporter Nathan Hodge interrupts the snorts of derision with a cold dose of reality.

For starters, the Taepodong-2 missile managed to successfully drop its first stage, which landed in the Sea of Japan. That's an improvement over a 2006 test, in which the missile disintegrated less than a minute after launch.

Worse yet:

Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at South Korea's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, told the Associated Press the launch would also yield strategic dividends for North Korea, because it potentially raises the stakes in stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

Recap: According to the U.S. Northern Command, North Korea launched its Taepo Dong 2 missile at 10:30 p.m. EDT Saturday which passed over the Sea of Japan/East Sea and the nation of Japan.

â''Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean,â'' Northcom reported. â''No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan.â''

Japan, South Korea and the United States had considered Pyongyangâ''s planned launch to be a thinly disguised test of missile that could in theory reach Alaska or Hawaii (upside: more foreign relations experience for Palin). For weeks, the lead-up to the launch had excited rubberneckers wondering whether President Obama would have the intestinal fortitude to shoot down a North Korean rocket. North Korea threatened to attack "major targets" in Japan should Tokyo attempt to shoot down the satellite. No word on what Kim Jong Il threatened to do to the U.S. should there be interference from that corner of the world.

But Hodge says the news isn't all bad:

The launch also seems to have offered the defense industry its last best hope against serious cuts to the Missile Defense Agency's budget. Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Association, told DANGER ROOM the test would have "clear implications" for the Department of Defense fiscal year 2010 budget that will be released later today. While Ellison said the industry was bracing for sweeping, top-line cuts to missile defense programs -- as high as $2 billion -- but this weekend's events may soften the blow.

See? Every silver cloud has a dark lining. Or something.

Mobile Phones Need Nanotechnology for...I Choose Better Batteries

Ughâ'¿I just read an interview with the Executive Vice President of the new markets group at Nokia and was distressed to discover that there doesnâ''t seem to be a clear understanding of what good nanotechnology is for mobile phones.

Last year Nokia and Cambridge University were crowing about a cartoon they made about what could be done when you combine plastic electronics with mobile phone technologies: A Dick-Tracy-like watch/cell phone.

Okay, it was good marketing for both Cambridge and Nokia, but I would be hard pressed to believe that any of the researchers at either outfit earnestly believed they were going to start developing that right away. It was just M-A-R-K-E-T-I-N-G.

But apparently the memo didnâ''t get down the guy in charge of new markets at Nokia because in the interview he was asked about the â''Morphâ'' phone and the role of nanotechnology, and he kept on about the importance of flexible displays.

Really? Thatâ''s what customers are clamoring about â''I want a flexible display, so I can wrap my phone around my wrist.â''

May I humbly suggest that this was the perfect opportunity to explain that â''Morphâ'' was not a research avenue they were devoting a lot of attention to, but nanotechnology could provide huge benefits in improving the lifespan of batteries of mobile phones. But instead we got the importance of flexible displays and keeping grease off them.

If someone were to ask me which would you prefer a phone that you only needed to charge once a month or one that was grease-resistant, I am going for the improved battery life. Whoâ''s with me?

Obama Calls for Global Cooperation on Reducing Nuclear Weapons

In response to a threatening rocket launch by North Korea, U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday called for deep cuts in the world's nuclear arsenals. On a visit to Prague to strengthen the NATO alliance, the American leader told a crowd of 20 000 that the focus of his remarks to them concerned "the future of nuclear weapons in the 21st century."

 

In his speech, Obama said that, even though the Cold War had ended, the dangers of a nuclear weapon falling into the wrong hands and being used in anger were just as great as ever. But he emphasized that the people of the world should not fall into a fatalistic mindset in which they come to believe that nothing can be done about the spread of nuclear arms.

 

"This fatalism is a deadly adversary," Obama told the crowd. "For if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable."

 

He noted that the United States, as the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons in anger, had a moral responsibility to lead a fight against the proliferation of such weapons and reduce the number of those that exist in the future, with a long-term goal of eliminating them entirely.

"First, the United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons," Obama pledged. "To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same."

 

The U.S. president then outlined his initiative:

 

 

 

To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia this year. President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding, and sufficiently bold. This will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.

 

 

To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.

 

 

And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons. If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons grade materials that create them.

 

 

Second, together, we will strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.

The basic bargain is sound: countries with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.

 

 

And we should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation. That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs. No approach will succeed if it is based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules. We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change, and to advance opportunity for all people.

 

 

We go forward with no illusions. Some will break the rules, but that is why we need a structure in place that ensures that when any nation does, they will face consequences. This morning, we were reminded again why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat. North Korea broke the rules once more by testing a rocket that could be used for a long-range missile.

 

 

This provocation underscores the need for action â¿¿ not just this afternoon at the UN Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons. Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response. North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons. And all nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime.

 

 

Iran has yet to build a nuclear weapon. And my administration will seek engagement with Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect, and we will present a clear choice. We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically. We will support Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections. That is a path that the Islamic Republic can take. Or the government can choose increased isolation, international pressure, and a potential nuclear arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all.

 

 

Let me be clear: Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe at this time will be removed.

 

 

Finally, we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. One terrorist with a nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction. al-Qaida has said that it seeks a bomb. And we know that there is unsecured nuclear material across the globe. To protect our people, we must act with a sense of purpose without delay.

 

 

Today, I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. We will set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, and pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.

 

 

We must also build on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade. Because this threat will be lasting, we should come together to turn efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into durable international institutions. And we should start by having a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year.

 

 

 

"I know that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda," Obama concluded. "But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together."

European Parliament Committee Diverges from Commission on Nanotech

In a stunning move the European Parliamentâ''s Environment Committee has adopted the principle of â''no data, no marketâ'' regarding nanotechnology.

The committee has essentially embraced the ideas emanating from a report by Swedish Green Member of Parliament (MEP), Carl Schlyter, which additionally calls for products containing nanotechnology already on the market to be withdrawn until safety assessments are made.

Whether the Parliament Committee really wants to extend controls to pulling products off the shelves is yet to be clearly known, but in any case the Environment Committee has taken quite a different position from that of the Commission, which has said that nanomaterials are in principle covered by current legislation and regulations.

European NGOs are, of course, ecstatic over this perceived victory. That is certainly to be expected since they have done a good job at upending some new companies and new productsâ''taking on big, bad industry in their minds and winningâ''without really having to pay much of a personal price. The number of products enabled by nanomaterials is small enough that they wonâ''t really need to sacrifice some of their favorite products. Well done.

They might have second thoughts, however, if the definition of what a nanomaterial is gets out of their hands and someone starts including any GMR material as a nanomaterial. They may have to have their iPods taken from themâ''for their own safety, of course.

Annual ACE Awards Honor Best in High-Tech World

So who are the brightest and the best in the world of electronics today? That question was answered this week at the 2009 EE|Times ACE Awards presented in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday.

The EE|Times in conjunction with IEEE Spectrum presents the Annual Creativity in Electronics (ACE) Awards to those who display outstanding leadership and innovation in technology. This year, the fifth awards ceremony took place during the Embedded Systems Conference in Silicon Valley. From thousands of nominations by industry peers, the editors of the two publications select five finalists, and a panel of distinguished engineers, such as Gordon Bell of Microsoft and Gene Frantz of Texas Instruments, select the award recipients.

The EE|Times selected the following individuals and enterprises as recipients of its 2009 ACE Awards:

  • Lifetime Achievement Award: Chung-Mou Chang, Founding Chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

  • Design Team of the Year: The Motorola Design Integration Center

  • Innovator of the Year: Stanley Williams, HP Senior Fellow and

    Director of the Information and Quantum Systems Laboratory

  • Executive of the Year: Necip Sayiner, President and CEO of Silicon Laboratories

  • Startup of the Year: BLADE Network Technologies

  • Company of the Year: Microchip Technology Inc.

  • Most Promising New Technology: SiBEAM

  • Best Enabler Award for Green Engineering: Cymbet Corp.

  • Most Innovative Renewable Energy Award: Advanced Energy Industries

  • Student of the Year: David Yanoshak, Senior, University of Texas at Austin

  • Educator of the Year: Leah Jamieson, Dean of Engineering, Purdue Univerity

This publication honored the following with its own ACE Awards:

  • IEEE Spectrum Technology in the Service of Society Award: The

    Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (for the technology having the greatest potential to provide the most overall benefit to humankind)

  • IEEE Spectrum Emerging Technology ACE Award: Geodynamics (for the emerging technology having the greatest potential to achieve financial success in broad commercial application)

Notes from the ACE Awards

The winner of the EE|Times Innovator of the Year Award, HP Senior Fellow R. Stanley Williams, graced the cover of the December issue of IEEE Spectrum with his report How We Found the Missing Memristor, an account of how the HP Information and Quantum Systems Lab discovered the elusive memristor, the fourth fundamental electric circuit element (joining the capacitor, the resistor, and the inductor), which acts something like a neuronal synapse.

The Spectrum Emerging Technology award went to Geodynamics, a company that's exploiting heat from rock deep beneath Australia's Outback. Many had thought such rock inaccessible, because there were no nearby pockets of water, but Geodynamics's engineers pump in water, expanding tiny cracks in the granite and thus turning it into a giant subterranean sponge. Geodynamics couldn't make it to the ACE awards ceremony, so we're sending the award to them.

Spectrum's Technology in the Service of Society award went to three organizations behind a robotic arm that's strong, light, dexterous, and easy to control. The winners were: DARPA, which defined the goal and provided the money; the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, which coordinated the 30-odd working groups; and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), which brought in the expertise of doctors and the feedback of potential users.

John Bigelow, program manager at Johns Hopkins's Applied Physics Lab, accepted for Hopkins and DARPA at a dinner hosted by IEEE Spectrum that evening. Blair Lock accepted for RIC. Lock, who has a master's degree in biomedical engineering, works on ways to knit together the electronics of the robotic arm with neural signals from a user's body. Lock said that different users look for very different features. "Teenage girls want it to look as natural as possible; they'd rather it looked perfect, with skin showing veins and everything, than that it do very much," he observed. "But an older guy wants to use it do stuff, and he doesn't care if it ends in a hook. Some even like to have flames painted on it."

The ceremony's keynote speech was delivered by retired astronaut Ken Mattingly (RADM, USN). He's the unfortunate guy who was bumped from the flight of Apollo 13 at the last minute because he'd been exposed to measles. In a riveting performance, Mattingly recounted the train of events that led to the accident in space that nearly doomed the crew. It was an engineering account worthy of Charles Perrow's theory of "normal accidents." Each event was preventable, no one event was fatal, and taken together they were wildly improbable.

Nothing could be further from the truth in describing the efforts of this year's winners of ACE Awards. Congratulations to them all.

(Thanks go to Senior Editor Philip E. Ross for his reporting from the awards presentation.)

Maybe thatâ¿¿s why we call it a â¿¿Depressionâ¿¿

Every day, we learn more and more about the brain, and we're largely doing it largely through MRIs, CAT scans, and other electrotechnologies.

This weekâ''s New Yorker has a astonishing article, â''Hellhole,â'' by Atul Gawande, asking whether long-term confinement is torture.

Gawande notes that ever since psychologist Harry Harlowâ''s studies in the 1950s, weâ''ve known that â''simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people,â''

And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.

We have been hesitant to apply these lessons to adults. Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldnâ''t have anything like a childâ''s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. We donâ''t have a lot of monkey experiments to call upon here. But mankind has produced tens of thousands of human ones, including in our prison system. And the picture that has emerged is profoundly unsettling.

Gawande says that studies of prisoners, both of war and criminals, â''reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.â'' He cites the case of Terry Anderson, the AP correspondent who in the 1980s was held hostage for seven years in Lebanon.

For the first few months after his release, Anderson said when I reached him by phone recently, â''it was just kind of a fog.â'' He had done many television interviews at the time. â''And if you look at me in the pictures? Look at my eyes. You can tell. I look drugged.â''

. . .

It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, â''The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? Thereâ''s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mindâ''s gone dead. God, help me.â''

And for the last 17 years, scientists have looked at the human brain itself to learn the extent to which psychological changes are mirrored in physiology.

EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

Isolation, it turns out, isnâ''t the only thing physiologically linked to depression. Consider money, or, more precisely, the lack of it.

In â''Why money messes with your mind,â'' Mark Buchanan writes in New Scientist,

As we come to understand more about money's effect on us, it is emerging that some people's brains can react to it as they would to a drug, while to others it is like a friend. Some studies even suggest that the desire for money gets cross-wired with our appetite for food. And, of course, because having a pile of money means that you can buy more things, it is virtually synonymous with status - so much so that losing it can lead to depression and even suicide. In these cash-strapped times, perhaps an insight into the psychology of money can improve the way we deal with it.

Buchanan cites research soon to be published in Psychological Science that â''people who felt rejected by others, or were subjected to physical pain, were subsequently less likely to give a monetary gift in a game situation. The researchers then went on to show that just handling paper money could reduce the distress associated with social exclusion, and also diminish the physical pain caused by touching very hot water.â'' And he quotes researcher Stephen Lea at the University of Exeter, who believes that money

< blockquote>acts on our minds rather like an addictive drug, giving it the power to drive some of us to compulsive gambling, overwork or obsessive spending (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol 29, p 161). "It is an interesting possibility that all these are manifestations of a broader addiction to money," says Lea.

In another set of brain imaging studies that contrasted immediate purchases with delayed ones, Samuel McClure of Princeton University found â''those who chose the instant reward brain activity showed brain activity in the areas linked with emotion, especially the limbic system, which is known to be involved in much impulsive behaviour and drug addiction.â'' Subjects who chose an opposite behavior â''showed activity in areas such as the prefrontal cortex known to be involved in rational planning.â''

So can we expect a second Economic Great Depression to trigger a global Mental Great Depression? Two things seem certain: as medical engineering progresses, those studying the brain will learn more about the physiology of our psychological states. And we will endure the financial meltdown with fewer psychological meltdowns if we face it together and fight it collectively. As the G20 meets in today in London, they must remember that the economy is a social sphere, and isolation will be traumatic.

Wearable Device Monitors Sleepiness

Walter Karlen and his colleagues in Lausanne, Switzerland have published an interesting article in this month's IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems about a wearable device that could be used to monitor drowsiness. Basically, they took a shirt and mounted various detectors on it. A belt running around the ribcage measures respiration; gel electrodes fixed to the pectoral area read out an electrocardiogram; and other electrodes detect muscle activation. The whole thing runs off a battery that's also mounted right on the shirt.

The approach combines a lot of the techniques traditionally used to determine whether a person is awake or asleep. Normally, however, the subject would have to be hooked up to a bunch of external machinesâ''the kind we usually only find in hospitals. The shirt would make it possible to monitor people, like truckers and pilots, whose occupations put them at a high risk of becoming drowsy.

One interesting aspect of the article is the creative way which the experimenters chose to deal with data artifacts. Cardiorespiratory signals tend to contain a lot of errors that get introduced when the subjects makes random movements. Instead of finding ways to subtract this data from their results, the group used it as a measurement in its own right, reasoning that if the person is moving they are more likely to be awake.

When tested, the device was able to accurately distinguish between sleep and wake states after a period of calibration. The problem is that falling asleep is not like flipping a switchâ''especially when you are trying to fight it back. As it is, the system canâ''t detect a gradual descent from consciousness. But you can imagine that if it were hooked up to an alert mechanism that jolted drivers or pilots back into focus (such as this one), the idea could save some lives.

U.S. and Russian Leaders Vow to Renew Nuke Reduction Efforts

The leaders of the two nuclear superpowers met today in London and promised to cool the friction between them that has arisen in recent times, particularly in the area of arms control.

The presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation met for the first time during the G20 Economic Summit and quickly got down to business on the most dangerous issue facing the two nations. In a joint statement, the presidents declared that the "era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over," according to a report from the Associated Press.

Pres. Barrack Obama and Pres. Dmitry Medvedev pledged to discuss mutual cooperation on a number of foreign policy matters around the globe, including ongoing problems involving Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea; but it was news on the bilateral arms-control issue between them that is making today's headlines.

As recently as last weekend, Medvedev had been using rhetoric that sounded an aggressive note more consonant with old-time Cold War language, as he let it be known that Russia would embark on a new nuclear submarine program designed to bolster its overall strategic defense. It may have been part of a deliberate tough-talking campaign aimed at getting the new American president to put arms-control negotiations on his already crowded front burner (see Russian President Promises Upgrade to Nation's Nuke Force in this space for more).

Today, though, the two leaders used warmer tones and plenty of smiles to indicate that they both wanted to share a commitment to paring down their nuclear stockpiles (particularly in their aging weapons -- see What About The Nukes? in Spectrum Online for a discussion on this topic).

The centerpiece of future arms talks between the former adversaries concerns what to do about the expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was signed in 1991 to place limits on both sides on how many strategic weapons in several categories that each could possess. START's provisions will end this December unless it is re-affirmed or supplanted by a new treaty. To that end, the two presidents have directed their arms-control teams to begin putting together a framework for an update to the old treaty by July, according to the AP account.

Analysts estimate that the United States now has some 2200 nuclear warheads on-hand and that Russia has 2800 deployed. Experts believe that the START replacement treaty would seek initially to cut strategic warhead arsenals to 1500 on each side, according to the AP.

"As I've said in the past, I think that over the last several years the relationship between our two countries has been allowed to drift," Obama said in a brief statement to the press following today's meeting. "And what I believe we've begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest, like the reduction of nuclear weapons and the strengthening of our nonproliferation treaties; our mutual interest in dealing with terrorism and extremism that threatens both countries; our mutual interest in economic stability and restoring growth around the world; our mutual interest in promoting peace and stability in areas like the Middle East."

The American president added that, "given the constructive conversations that we've had today," he thought the occasion marked a "beginning of new progress" between the two nations.

"I can only agree that the relations between our countries have been adrift over the past years," Medvedev said via a translator. "[W]e believe that the time has come to reset our relations, as it was said, and to open a new page in progression in the development of our common situation. Indeed, it was said that we are prepared to cooperate further in such areas as the nonproliferation of WMDs limitation of strategic weapons, countering terrorism, and improving economic and financial situation and the overall economic situation in the world."

The Russian president concluded by noting: "After this meeting, I am far more optimistic about the successful development of our relations, and would like to thank President Obama for this opportunity."

Obama also said he would travel to Moscow in July "to build on some of the areas" involved in today's meeting. And Medvedev assured him that he would receive a warm welcome when he visits the Russian capital in the summer.

Brain Vs. Computer, Round 979013

Ray Kurzweil's Singularity movement is predicated on the eventual ability (hence all the vitamins) to build empty simulacra of human brains into which our consciousness can be poured when our bodies fail, letting us live on forever. (Never mind the population nightmare that would result.) Many Singularitarians assume that with Moore's Law, technological advances will allow us to build a brain within 50 years.

Although no one really knows how much information the human brain stores, New York Times bloggers Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang give it a guess in a must-read discussion of the electrical engineering and neuroscience of the Singularity. It's not often that you find both, so go read the piece.

The consensus among neuroscientists is that a chunk of brain the size of a thimble contains 50 million neurons.

The memory capacity in this small volume is potentially immense. Electrical impulses that arrive at a synapse give the recipient neuron a small chemical kick that can vary in size. Variation in synaptic strength is thought to be a means of memory formation. Samâ''s lab has shown that synaptic strength flips between extreme high and low states, a flip that is reminiscent of a computer storing a â''oneâ'' or a â''zeroâ'' â'' a single bit of information.

But unlike a computer, connections between neurons can form and break too, a process that continues throughout life and can store even more information because of the potential for creating new paths for activity. Although weâ''re forced to guess because the neural basis of memory isnâ''t understood at this level, letâ''s say that one movable synapse could store one byte (8 bits) of memory. That thimble would then contain 1,000 gigabytes (1 terabyte) of information. A thousand thimblefuls make up a whole brain, giving us a million gigabytes â'' a petabyte â'' of information. To put this in perspective, the entire archived contents of the Internet fill just three petabytes.

The upshot of this is that the brain manages to store that much information on 12 Watts (a computer that could do the same would require the power supply that drives Washington DC). It does so, however, by taking some notorious shortcuts: it encodes emotion to strengthen an event in memory, it is prone to prejudice and poor planning, it approximates shamelessly (hence a physicist's ability to "imagine a spherical cow"-- not exactly floating point operations, is it?).

So all this fetishizing the ability to build a human brain may be misguided. Because in order to get the amazing parts to work, we have to throw in the less amazing parts.

What Aamodt and Wang touch on is the idea that maybe replicating an exact human brain would be impossible-- and if it were possible, the result would not be a HAL-like Rainman-meets-Aspberger's superbrain, but a financially irresponsible, mildly racist, xenophobic jerk. What a depressing use of research money.

They liken our brains to 100-year old jalopies:

Because the brain arose through natural selection, it contains layers of systems that arose for one function and then were adopted for another, even though they donâ''t work perfectly. An engineer with time to get it right would have started over, but itâ''s easier for evolution to adapt an old system to a new purpose than to come up with an entirely new structure. Our colleague David Linden has compared the evolutionary history of the brain to the task of building a modern car by adding parts to a 1925 Model T that never stops running.

So lots of people are working on creating accurate simulations of the human brain. Is anyone working to "start over?"

And what does starting over look like? What would the human brain look like if it had been designed from scratch?

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