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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.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words for Nanotech Definitions

Personally, I am more than a little fed up with definitions of nanotechnology. But I have to confess a small addiction to Youtube and other online video sites.

So, I was a little conflicted when I saw the American Chemical Society decided that they would have a contest on who could make the best video to answer the question: What is Nano?

The criteria for the videos is that they be no more than 3 minutes long and address the following questions: What is "nano"? How is "nano" best visualized? Where is "nano" headed?

Umhâ'¿wellâ'¿to the last question the answer may be â''Sesame Streetâ'' as it seems the video getting the most traction right now is the Nano Song (see below).

The Nano Song from nanomonster on Vimeo.

But if there are any budding filmmakers out there, you still have over two weeks to submit your production with the deadline set for March 15th. If you are the chosen winner, you get $500.

Lie down with Big Dog, wake up with budget deficit

If you have a high tolerance for military jargon ("situational awareness"), civilian cliches ("a leg up on the competition"), and generally meaningless phrases dripping with overwrought technophilia ("pushing the envelope on what reality is as we know it"-- what?), have I got a video for you.

The Fort Benning public affairs office has discovered Big Dog, and as their correspondent puts it, "the robotics revolution is here." The Georgia base's news service, the Benning Report, covered Big Dog being put through its paces.

But the most astounding information the video has nothing to do with Big Dog. Between 1990 and 2003, the packs U.S. soldiers have to carry have ballooned an eye-popping 45 pounds. That's a total of 145 pounds! That was the rationale behind Big Dog--after all, on the battlefield, mobility translates into survivability. "If a kid's carrying a Winnebago on his back and he gets into a firefight," LTC Matthew England explains in the video, "and he can't move quickly enough, he could become a casualty."

So let's say you can still function well with 50 pounds on your back. That means offloading 100 pounds onto your accompanying Big Dog, which means it can carry about 2.2 soldiers' gear. (And as we know, there is no such thing as 0.2 soldiers.)

Now let's say the Big Dog can carry 100% of its weight (I'm just making that up. I have no idea what is possible). That's 220 pounds, which is 50 lbs x 4.5 which is really the lower limit of what would be worth the cost of a pack bot (if it can only rid you of 20 pounds of a 145 pound pack, is it really worth the cost?).

So at 100 pounds of pack, that's one big dog per 2 soldiers. At 50 pounds of pack, that number increases to one big dog per 4 soldiers.

A squad has 10 or so soldiers, a platoon has four squads (44-60), and a company has four platoons.

That means the best case for a single squad is two or three big dogs coming along. Multiply that by four for a platoon (about 10), and by four again for a company (about 40--you'd have a small platoon of big dogs per company).

If you want them to take over most of the weight of the pack, that's 4-5 Big Dogs per squad, 16-20 per platoon, and consequently 64-80 Big Dogs per company of soldiers. That's a lot of fuel, and a lot of creepy no-headed quadrupeds. And if one of them breaks down? Is it cheap enough to leave by the wayside? Or does one of the Big Dogs carry it home?

I cannot begin to guess how much these things cost, but in the context of other military spending, I'd put this thing at least at $100,000. At that point the Army might look to cost-cutting measures like getting each soldier his own personal Sherpa.

Iberian Nanotech Evolves

Back in 2006, the respective Spanish and Portuguese Ministries of Technologies announced their plans to each contribute 15 million Euros into building a facility in Braga Portugal, now known as the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory.

At the time of the announcement, I was a bit incredulous since just two years before in a report from the European Commission â''Towards a European strategy for nanotechnologyâ'' it was revealed that Spain (along with Portugal) were right at the bottom of per capita spending on Nanotech. With its 4 cents per person spent on Nanotech, Spain invested 1.6 million Euros in nanotech in 2004.

Essentially, it seemed to me that the Spanish and Portuguese governments after starving researchers and research labs for the most rudimentary tools for conducting research were now going to multiply their nanotech investment by a factor of 10 to give more money to the construction industry.

In the Iberian building boom of the early 2000s, this just seemed like the only way that the government knew how to spend money: new construction.

I may be a bit more hopeful now than I was a few years ago, but I have little to base this optimism on except maybe the projects willingness to present itself in English, to have its own blog, and a general aim of directing the research to â''the creation of societal value and wealthâ''. But the truth is that the new lab will not be operational until 2010, so a fair degree of faith informs my optimism.

The current state of nanotechnology, at least in Spain, is perfectly crystallized in the news that the Spanish pavilion at the recent nano tech 2009 International Nanotechnology Exhibition & Conference in Tokyo would consist of 22 booths.

While it is encouraging news that such a large number would be represented at the event, it simultaneously gives one pause to examine the makeup of the group. Some companies were represented in the contingent, but it was predominantly made up of not-for-profits, government organizations, and academic research.

But to be fair, when one considers that just five years ago Spain spent only 1.6 million Euros on nanotech, itâ''s a wonder that there were any businesses represented there at all.


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