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Bluetooth Headsets: Noises Off

Last night, I attended the Digital Experience Holiday Spectacular in New York City, a consumer electronics media event where the whoâ''s who and â''Whoâ''s that?â'' gather to gain buzz for their latest and greatest. As I passed by the tables looking for something that wasnâ''t just an incremental improvement over last year or something slapped together as a placeholder between now and the Consumer Electronics Show in January, one interesting trend slowly became apparent.

Bluetooth wireless earpiece makers have finally gotten the message: if they want to make a mint selling these handsfree devices the way cellular handset makers have raked in cash selling phones, they had better do something about these gadgetsâ'' pitiful sound quality. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to reveal that a Bluetooth headset was my most prized gift last Christmas. But it is now interred in my personal consumer electronics mausoleum (read: sock drawer) along with a couple of old cellphones, a Handspring Visor, and some digital watches whose batteries I never bothered to replace.

Why did I retire it so soon? Because its single most outstanding trait was its ability to heighten the frustration that comes along with the conveniences of wireless telephony. Iâ''ll give you an example. In New York State, where I live, drivers are required to use handsfree devices. But Iâ''ve got twin two-year-old boys, and the phrase, â''Shhhh, daddyâ''s trying to talk on the phone,â'' holds as much meaning for them as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And in that enclosed space, trying to have a conversation was very often an exercise in comic futility. All I got for my trouble was reduced time between charges on my handset, because maintaining the connection to the earpiece drew precious energy from its tiny battery.

But now, just in time for the upcoming holiday season, come a bunch of new â''Bluetoothsâ'' that might sound as good as AT&Tâ''s plain old telephone service circa 1960. Motorola showed a tiny earpiece that its PR rep says will allow you to talk to someone from, say, the floor of an industry tradeshow and convince them that youâ''re in the stacks at your local library. Plantronics was hawking earpieces featuring a technology it calls AudioIQ thatâ''s supposed to suppress nearly all background noise. One of the high end models has two microphonesâ''one to pick up the speakerâ''s voice, and the other to take in, digitize, then eliminate the surrounding cacophony. A small company called Jawbone showcased an elegant device that has taken a contract out on noise with a technology called Noise Assassin.

I have no idea how well these products do what they purport to do. But the reps all promise to put me in touch with product managers and engineers who can explain what makes AudioIQ so smart and what weapons the Noise Assassin has at its disposal. Iâ''ll report back. And who knows? I might be convinced to give these Bluetooth gizmos another shot.

Buffett Bolsters Nuclear Portfolio Edging Out France

The Oracle of Omaha has agreed in principle of pay $4.7 for Constellation Energy, whose five reactors produce three fifths of the electricity it generates in the United States. On the eve of the agreement, Electricité de France had been hoping to take a stake in Constellation and use it as a bridgehead into a revived U.S. nuclear energy market. Still hanging fire are EDFâ''s efforts to purchase British Energy, which owns and operates the UKâ''s nuclear reactor fleet.

EDF already is a significant exporter of nuclear electricity to the United Kingdom, but the British are having some trouble digesting the prospect of their nuclear reactor complementâ''which the government wants to sharply expand to produce carbon-free energyâ''being owned by France. But what do they have to complain about really? Itâ''s a logical result of introducing competition in electricity, a global movement that they largely inspired.

I live in Brooklyn, New York, and the natural gas that heats my home is delivered by Britainâ''s National Gridâ''thatâ''s right, the company that was set up to own and operate the countryâ''s electric power system, when the UK restructured the system and separated generation from transmission.

Three-Dimensional Solar Cells Made Out of Carbon Nanotubes

Headlines in both the mainstream and technology media have been buzzing with reports of a 12-year-oldâ''s science project that describes a 3D solar cell made from carbon nanotubes that can absorb both visible and UV light.

Headlines like â''A 12-Year-Old's Solar Cell May Revolutionize the Energy Industryâ'' litter the press, but despite reading a number of the stories I canâ''t ascertain if the wunderkind, who goes by the name of William Yuan, has actually created some kind of prototype or merely describes the technology.

Advice is coming thick and fast to patent the technology and start licensing.

Now I donâ''t want rain on anyoneâ''s parade, especially a 12-year-oldâ''s, but there is something eerily similar to this technology and a 3D solar cell made out of nanotubes by Georgia Tech researchers.

Odd that this GTRI announcement didnâ''t garner the same â''revolutionize the energy industryâ'' headlines. I guess the researchers were just 20 years too old to make it news.

Oscar Pistorius Sweeps Sprint Events at Paralympics

He was once barred from competing in the recent Summer Olympics because international athletics officials deemed his high-tech prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage against able-bodied runners.

Oscar Pistorius took the gold today in the 400 meters at the Paralympics in the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, wrapping up a triple event sweep of the short distances in the worldwide track meet for persons with disabilities. According to an account from the Associated Press, Pistorius finished first in the 400 with a time of 47.49 seconds, a world record for his disability class.

The win matched similar performances in the 100- and 200-meter events, giving the South African double-amputee three gold medals in Beijing to go along with a gold he earned in the 200 at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

Dubbed "The Blade Runner" by the media, Pistorius was born without fibulas in his lower legs and had both limbs amputated in early childhood. As a young man, he took an interest in soccer after being fitted with prostheses. This led to a passion for running and an historic collaboration with one of the world's top prosthetic design firms, Ossur of Reykjavik, Iceland, which built customized carbon-fiber prosthetic legs for him.

The early chapters of the Pistorius story have been chronicled here at IEEE Spectrum over the last three years. European journalist Marlowe Hood introduced us to the "fastest man on no legs" in November 2005 in an online feature called Born to Run. From time to time since then, we've updated the progress of Pistorius in his quest to graduate from a competitor in the Paralympics to one in the Olympics and other world-class track meets open to all comers.

(For example, see our blog entries Officials Question Amputee Sprinter's Tech Legs and Double Amputee Oscar Pistorius Can Try for Olympics on the controversy over Pistorius's carbon-fiber racing prostheses.)

Although Pistorius was eventually cleared to compete for a spot on the South African team at the Beijing Games, he faced a challenge of meeting a minimum qualification time of 45.55 seconds in the 400. He could only muster a competitive 46.25 run against able-bodied runners from his country. That left the Paralympics as his only recourse this year.

Still, Pistorius has his sites already set on the next Olympics to be held in London in 2012, as well as upcoming international meets. For that, he will have to build on the momentum he's achieved up till now to become even faster, a challenge that he said today will require "a lot of work."

"I have five or six able-bodied meets in Europe next year and those are all stepping stones to get to the bigger meets," Pistorius noted. "I'm looking forward to next year's calendar and [the] next four years."

We're looking forward to seeing how he overcomes the latest hurdles in a race to achieve his dream.

Out of Africa: Fish versus fishing

I spent last Sunday morning on the beach in West Africa. To be precise, I spent last Sunday morning observing Fante fishermen, bringing in their catch in the shadows of Cape Coast Castle, an old slaving fort that stands as a bleak reminder of human cruelty.

The Fante men fish four or five men to a wooden boat. The boat is essentially carved out of a long long. For nets, the men use manufactured nylon things, and most days, either before or after going to sea, men repair the nets themselves, stitching holes with their own hands.

The outboard motor is another technology that, along with nets, revolutionized West African fishing some 50 years ago. These motors are considered so important that government continues to sell them to fishermen at subsidizes prices.

Little has changed lately, however, so the fishermen of Fanteland face a crisis. High birth-rates have transformed the demographics of the Atlantic coast of Ghana (and elsewhere in Africa). Youth flood the beach, helping to pull to the shore the heavy wooden boats and then sort the dayâ''s catch, which is quickly transferred to women fish mongers seated in front of plastic bowls set on the sand.

The younger men dream of running their own boats, but older men occupy the positions on board and launching new fishing boats is costly. A single hand-made boat, without an outboard motor, can cost nearly $1,000.

The Internet is a distant echo for the fishermen of Cape Coast. Neither does the mobile phone â'' now owned by one in five Africans, according to the World Bank â'' shape their working lives. The sea remains dangerous. Every year some number of Fante are lost in the choppy waters. The fish catch, meanwhile, grows smaller, at least on a per fisherman basis. Less fish per fishermen means less money.

Nevertheless, fishing remains economically important in Ghana.

Fish farming ought to ease the burdens of the Fante fishermen but to fish farm they would have to move inland and they do not wish to do so. They are married to life on the coast. And Africaâ''s small but growing number of fish farmers face their own constraints, notably the cost of feed for farm-raised fish.

In the abstract, fish farming seems like a panacea, but the cost of feed has risen alongside the cost of food for humans. The same corn that people eat, fish eat too. So fish farmers in Ghana find themselves competing for resources with human consumers.

Ultimately, the solution for both ocean fishermen and aqua-farmers turns on technological change â'' and the openness of tradition-people to adopt not only new tools but also new ways of life.

Ex-Intel Engineer Caught Stealing Chip Recipes

Businesses struggle mightily to keep their secrets. They spend billions on firewalls and encryption schemes meant to keep out the wolves at the door. But there is still little that can be done when the perpetrators are trusted parties. Intel got a first-hand reminder of that cold reality in June, when it was discovered that Biswamohan Pani, a design engineer at the companyâ''s Hudson, Mass., R&D facility, pilfered the recipes for some of the chipmakerâ''s soon-to-be-released offerings.

Sure, Pani helped develop the recipes for chips such as Intelâ''s Itanium, perhaps adding morsels that made them more appealing to the companyâ''s legions of customers. But Intel owns the rights. And the way he carried out the caper suggests that he knew his actions would leave a bad taste in his employerâ''s mouth and possibly land him in hot water.

Pani turned in his Intel apron at the end of May. But by that time, he had already been hired by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices to cook up some competitive designs at one of its R&D kitchens. Shortly after he reported for duty at AMD on 2 June, he apparently remembered that:

1) he was, technically, still a full-fledged Intel employee, with all the rights and privileges thereof;

2) one of those privileges was access to an encrypted database containing a cache of what are essentially top-secret recipe cards for Intelâ''s chips, plus drawings meant to ensure that the finished products are not half-baked.

The FBI alleges that Pani helped himself to 100 pages of these recipes and 18 drawings. His supposed intent: to blend these trade secrets into the mix at AMD, thus sweetening its batters and becoming a renowned chef.

But when he was clumsily designing this ruseâ''which included a suspicion-diverting story about him going to work for a hedge fundâ''he apparently overlooked one fatal defect. He hadnâ''t figured out how to prevent his former colleagues at Intel from discovering that he was having his chips and eating them too. Once they caught a whiff of what he was up to, his duplicity was sniffed out with simple system access check. Now his goose is cooked.

Underground Coal Combustion


An article in the Wall Street Journal reports on a technology it says is getting a lot of attention in China, which itâ''misleadingly, I believeâ''refers to as underground coal gasification. That makes it sound as if coal is gasified, as in IGCC, creating a syngas thatâ''s burned. But actually the technology seems to more closely resemble oxyfiring, a technology Vattenfall is just now demonstrating for the first time at larger-than-laboratory scale at a plant in East Germany. In the approach described in the Journal, coal is ignited underground and fed a piped-down stream of pure oxygen; the combustion yields nitrogen-free gases including carbon dioxide, which can be separated and kept underground.

The Journal says this technology was invented in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and demonstrated at a large scale in Uzbekistan.

Coal combustion in China and India is the biggest single aspect of the long-term climate problem, and was the subject of a two-issue special report in IEEE Spectrum, in November and December 1999.

UPDATE, 9/18/08:

My fellow energy writer and editor Peter Fairley has alerted me to an accuracy in this blog. From the cryptic Wall Street Journal description of the technology, I came away with the impression that it was closely analogous to oxyfiring, where coal is burned in an atmosphere of pure oxygen. Underground coal gasification is in fact more closely analogous to IGCC, inasmuch as a syngas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is created, as well as methane and carbon dioxide. The combustible gases can be burned at the surface to drive turbines; in some situations at least, the carbon dioxide can be stored in the subsurface voids left by the gasified coal.

A basic description of the process and its variants can be found at:

Out of Africa: Goodbye Solar, Hello Nuclear Power

There is a curious, even strange and demented, technological trend underway in Ghana, a west African country which recently made a major oil discovery and boasts large hydro-electric resources.

Ghana wants to go nuclear.

The country may be bathed in sunshine. It may even have potential supplies of wind and thermal power. And Ghana can essentially "harvest" enormous amounts of electricity by vastly reducing "transmission losses" from its venerable Volta dam complex.

And yet despite all these energy supplies, real and forecasted, Ghana's government is training hundreds of people in order to staff a planned nuclear-power plant that would be the country's first.

The planned plant would open ten years from now.

But well before 2018, nuclear power could become a serious distraction in Ghana, consuming brains and funds that would better go towards grabbing the "low-hanging" fruit in the country's energy mix.

Ghana isn't the only African country talking up nuclear power. Recently, Nigeria stunned the world when its government announced a desire to install many nuclear-power plants around its densely-populated country. Nigeria went so far as to strike an accord with Iran last month over assistance in developing nuclear power.

The logic behind Nigeria's nuclear embrace is peculiar: The country's broken infrastructure means frequent electricity shortages. Even gasoline pumps often go dry because of the poor condition of the country's refineries.

If Nigeria can't run an oil-refinery, why is the government even contemplating the much more challenging task of running nuclear power plants?

Well, maybe Nigerians are simply jealous of nearby neighbor Ghana. The country has a better record of managing infrastructure than Nigeria. Yet Ghana hardly seems a candidate to join the list of nuclear power countries. Ghana has barely mastered the challenging "arts and crafts" of road-building. Internet communication remains very costly and afflicted by reliability problems. The country is home to perhaps 500 world-class engineers, not enough to meet current needs no less than demand caused by a new nuclear plant.

As it happens, I am in Accra, Ghana's capital, as I write. With a presidential election less than 90 days off in Ghana, the public isn't thinking about nuclear power. In the past, Accra's tiny environmental community has staunchly opposed an African nuclear delusion. From sizing up Accra over the past 10 days, my bet is the opponents will rise again.

Flying the Rails at 360 kph

Air France-KLM, Europe's leading air carrier, is going electric. Forget about visions of battery-electric airplanes. EV technology has its work cut out just commercializing battery-electric cars, let alone trying to catapult hundreds of passengers into the air. Instead, Air France is recognizing the energy-efficiency and convenience of commuter trains and hitting the rails.

Last week the Paris-based airline launched a joint venture with European bus and train operator Veolia to offer high-speed rail service between London, Paris and Amsterdam beginning in 2010 -- the year that EU laws will open international rail travel to competition. For technology they are eyeing a new generation of high-speed coaches that's nearing completion: the Automotrice à Grande Vitesse or AGV under development by France's Alstom.

The AGV is faster, more efficient and can haul more passengers than its predecessor, the TGV. In speed tests in 2007 the AGV hit 574.8 kilometers per hour -- within spitting distance of the speed record set by Japan's maglevs. Alstom expects the AGV to cruise at 360 kph in regular service -- about 40 kph above the TGV's limit.

Italy's NTV is building rails for the first AGV's, which are expected to begin rolling there in 2011.

The AGV setting the world speed record for travel on (as opposed to above) rails:



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