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Life-building organic molecules found in a distant galaxy

Astronomers from Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have found the organic molecules hydrogen cyanide and methanimine in Arp 220, a galaxy that lies about 250 million light years away. The discovery is noteworthy because the two molecules are among the basic ingredients of life. When methanimine and hydrogen cyanide are combined with water, the amino acid glycine is formed. This is the farthest ever that these molecules have been seen. The astronomers chose Arp 220, an ultra-luminous galaxy, because it seems to be forming new stars at a very high rate. They used the 305-metre diameter Arecibo radio telescope, the world's largest and most sensitive, to observe the galaxy at different frequencies. Different molecules have unique radio frequencies associated with them, much like human beings have unique fingerprints.

"The fact that we can observe these substances at such a vast distance means that there are huge amounts of them in Arp 220," said Emmanuel Momjian, a former Arecibo astronomer, now at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico. "It is indeed very intriguing to find that the ingredients of life appear in large quantities where new stars and planets are born."

CES Video Highlights: Bug Labs Lets You Build Your Own Gadget

Even though they had a tiny booth at CES, Bug Labs seemed to strike a nerve. In addition to winning CNET's Best of CES Award for emerging technologies, the Bug team excited the crowd with the promise of one gadget to replace the ever increasing menagerie of devices on exhibit elsewhere at the show. Steven Cherry has already discussed why open source hardware is so revolutionary, but its best to just see the Bug for yourself. We talked first to Mehrshad Mansouri, who gave an overview of the device and showed off some of its initial possibilities:

Next up was Bug Labs' Jeremy Toeman, who explained how the bug base, modules, and software actually work together, and what sort of engineering challenges faced the team:

The Bug may not be the smallest or most attractive device out there, but it's as close as you'll come to one that's future proof. Do you think open source gadgets can become as successful as open source software? Let us know what you'd want your dream gadget to be able to do.

Get Your Broadband Fix on Route 66

The convergence of car culture and Internet culture was one of the more interesting themes at last week's Consumer Electronics Show, where Spectrum associate editor Josh Romero and I demo'd Sync, Ford's answer to GM's Onstar. Josh's excellent videoblog entry, here, goes through the features.

As it turns out, Sync, which is in some ways a step up from Onstar, may itself be leapfrogged by new developments at Chrysler.

One lacuna in Sync, which was written by Microsoft, is that it uses a one-way (satellite) communication's link. In his blog, Josh complained that "Instead of getting Sync software updates through the Travel Link connection, Ford owners will have to download it onto a USB stick at their computer first, and then physically carry it to the car."

And in a separate blog entry last week, "Ford in Sync, But Out of Step," I generally took Ford and Microsoft to task for the one-way connection. I asked Ford's product development manager Gary Jablonski, who gave us the demo, whether he regretted that Sprint's new Xohm network wasn't available for Sync. Jablonski gave a diplomatic non-answer: We're happy with the system we have.

Xohm would give cars a true, two-way broadband connection to the Internet — basically, it would be having DSL on the highways and byways of North America. Sprint is building the Xohm network throughout this year and next; Chicago, Washington D.C., and Baltimore are slated to have it by April. Spectrum deemed the Xohm build-out a winning project in Spectrum's January Winners & Losers 2008 issue.

As it turns out, Chrysler may end up with what we could call third-mover advantage. t the Detroit Auto Show this week, the company announced that it is building WiMax into their cars and will use it as the basis of their own in-vehicle navigation/weather/safety/etc. system, according to the blog Wimaxday.

And as if in answer to Josh's complaint that firmware updates require a manual operation via the car's USB port, Chrysler said,

Amongst the most compelling applications for this new communications system is the integration of wireless connectivity to the on-board computer of an automobile that will provide for â''remote vehicle computer updatingâ'' and eventually self-diagnostics.

Chrysler's announcement doesn't make any mention of Xohm. There may of course be a formal arrangement to come. Sprint spokesperson Jeff Chaltas had no comment when I asked him about that. But Xohm is a bring-your-own-device network, and you can buy service by day, month, or megabyte.

Any WiMax-certified device should work on Xohm, and you can bet that with millions of potential customers at stake, Sprint will make sure that Chrysler's cars can connect to the network. Sprint's business model is expected to let you certify several devices as being yours if you subscribe by the month. Your laptop, your Blackberry, your iPod.... and maybe soon your car.

Speaking only for myself, there are few features that would bind me to one car manufacturer over another. But true broadband on an open, ubiquitous network is probably one of them.

After Long Delay, Electricity Flows from al Quds Power Station in Baghdad

Field notes from Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette, now on assignment in Iraq:

1-15-08

Traveled to the al Quds power station today from the Green Zone. I made that same trip two and a half years ago and the experience became the lead of the story I wrote about electrical reconstruction. â''We had an incident, the engineer tells me.â''

Today we didn't have an incident, and that fact seemed to pleasantly surprise the handful of Army Corps of Engineers officers and civilians on the trip. The territory between the Green Zone and Quds (or, as the military insists on calling it, Qudas) has become somewhat more dangerous in the last couple of years. The trip to Quds is always a bit of a risk; it goes through dense, urban territory in north Baghdad, with lots of tall buildings and alleyway escape routes lining the travel route. There are many choke points, check points, and traffic tie ups.

About a mile past the checkpoint out of the Green Zone, we saw a young man in a red hooded sweatshirt, standing on a high concrete platform, looking at us, waving a black flag and looking in a different direction, and then looking at us again. Look at armored convoy, wave black flag, look at armored convoy, wave black flag. I'm not a security expert but I didn't think that was good. The Navy Commander who is the executive officer of the Army Corps division in charge of Quds seemed fairly sure we were going to get hit. He's survived more than a dozen IED attacks so I figured his judgment is probably pretty good on this subject. But we weren't hit. Blissfully event-free.

I was reassured, sort of, by the fact that this time we were in Revas vehicles, rather than in armored Toyota Land Cruisers, which is what we were in last time. The Revas are made in South Africa. They have a V-shaped hull to deflect an IED blast outward, and

they're much higher off the ground than humvees. They also have level 6B armor. I have no idea what that is. But the security team leader, from Aegis, said it in a way that was clearly meant to be reassuring. So I took that cue. The Revas also have two canopies on the roof where gunners get a very good look at the surrounding situation.

So we made it to Quds, and I saw dozens of diesel fuel trucks, and I knew what that meant. They got the LM6000 turbines running! Or at least a couple of them, anyway. In one of the lousier decisions of Iraqi electrical reconstruction, somebody decided to put four GE LM6000 turbines at Quds. LM6000s like natural gas, or highly pure diesel fuel. Neither is available at Quds.

The diesel fuel they've been trucking in is fairly crummy, and the LMs haven't run much so far. But lately they've gotten either better fuel or figured out how to operate the plant's fuel filters, so two of the four LM6000s are running, and adding about 150 megawatts to Baghdad's power supply. Last time I was there, none of them were running. It was starting to look like none of them were ever going to run.

It's good news that two of the turbines are running, but the bad news is that just those two units consume diesel fuel about as fast as it can be brought to the plant. There were about 35 tanker trucks in a queue that snaked all around the Quds facility today (the line can't go outside the facility because it's not really safe out there). Those 35 trucks hold one day's worth of fuel for the two turbines, I was told.

One of the Corps of Engineers assistant site managers, from Roswell, New Mexico, was surprised earlier that day when her Iraqi workers slaughtered a lamb to celebrate some milestone in an ongoing expansion project to add two more turbine-generators to the Quds facility.

Let me digress a bit here to say there's some machine gun fire that's pretty audible now outside. There have been about half a dozen short bursts. I suspect it's some sort of training, because I'm on the Victory Base Complex, surrounded by miles and miles of blast walls, razor wire, checkpoints, and countless other security measures.

Back to that Navy commander who is the executive officer of the Corps of Engineers group that oversees Quds, the guy who survived all those IED attacks. He survived those attacks while traveling through extremely dangerous territory to construction sites where Iraqi workers were building health clinics, with Corps funding, for women and children in Iraq. One of the IEDs that hit him was an EFP, an explosively formed penetrator, a particularly dreaded form of IED. It forms a heavy projectile of semimolten metal that travels at speeds great enoughâ''more than twice the speed of a rifle round--to penetrate armor. I've seen the holes it leaves in armorâ''they're like the clean, perfect holes that Bugs Bunny used to leave in the cartoons, rabbit ears and all.

He and the other people in his vehicle survived that EFP attack, but they were all gravely injured. He had to be airlifted to Germany and he needed 600 internal stitches to stop his internal bleeding. And then he came back here.

I asked him why. He said it was because of the feeling he got when he saw women and children using the health clinics he set up. Yeah, go ahead and call that mawkish. But only after you've earned the right to do so by surviving a horrendous EFP hit.

--GZ

Environmentalists engage in the absurd concerning nanotech with a hope of the sublime in the future

The UK-based Soil Association announced via a Financial Times article that they would not certify any products as organic if they contain additives â''made by the burgeoning nanotechnology industryâ'', despite the fact that the Soil Associationâ''s policy manager, Gundula Azeez, said the nano ban would not affect any products.

Tim Harper, noted UK nanotechnology analyst, through his TNTLog, revealed this for the unintentional self-parody that it is. With Harper commenting, â''Why on earth nanotech has been singled out is a mystery. Itâ''s akin to announcing that a synthetic chemical such as paracetamol will not be certified as natural.â''

Barnaby Feder at his â''Bits Blogâ'' in the New York Times was equally incredulous of this rather strange announcement. But Feder added the qualification that these kinds of announcements are somehow a natural outcropping of many NGOâ''s frustration over the lack of government activities in determining the toxicity of nanoparticles.

Maybe so. Frustration makes lots of people do silly things. But I canâ''t see how this helps anybody or anything. It further marginalizes environmental concerns about nanoparticles by making their positions seem absurd, and it doesnâ''t motivate the powers-that-be (whoever they are) to take any action.

All in all this is just foolish grandstanding.

A Tear in the Internet Big Enough to Drive a Pushpin Through

The weekly public radio program â''On The Mediaâ'' had another great show last Saturday, as usual, except for its story on the Internetâ''s domain name system. The occasion was nominally the grudging acceptance by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, of new top-level domains for non-Roman alphabets, specifically Chinese and Cyrillic ones. In reality, the OTM story was inspired by a confused story in the UK paper The Guardian, â''Kremlin eyes internet control ...,â'' back on 3 January.

On the Media presented a single â''expert,â'' Tim Wu, who is a lawyer and academician, not a network engineer or scientist, and one known for iconclastic views, to put it mildly. Worse, OTM host Brooke Gladstone let him assert without further questioning that having multiple alphabets or multiple root servers could fracture the Internet. If youâ''re not going to present an alternative view, Brooke, you have to at least ask how the one causes the other. It may seem obvious it will, but it isnâ''t. And it may not be true.

Worse still, for On The Media, China already has the equivalent of an alternative root, and it hasnâ''t fractured the Internet. And lastly, the ICANN method for handling alternative alphabetsâ''which has already been approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force as the standard way of doing itâ''would to some extent do away with the need for the alternative Chinese root server. So it would heal any potential Internet breach, not create one.

Not that alternative root servers are such a big deal anyway. The fact is, weâ''ve had them for a long time. I first wrote about them in January 2001 ("Internet Name Game Gets Serious"), and they werenâ''t new even then. I presented arguments that alternative roots were, indeed, a potential problem, and described the two ways they could be. I didnâ''t believe it was likely to prove a real problem then and I donâ''t think it is one now.

The potential problems are these. First, domains accessible only via an alternative root may not be findable by the mainstream users, who service providers who access only the main root system, the one blessed by ICANN.

Second is the potential for ambiguity in resolving an Internet address. If both the main root system and the alternative root system support their own .biz domains, for example, a name like onthemedia.biz could resolve to two different Internet protocol addresses, depending on which root system was queried.

This second problem is potentially serious, but in practice one rootâ''s domain will win and the other will lose. Thatâ''s what happened in 2001 when ICANN created its own .biz domain. The existing one, an already-not-very-popular five-year-old domain run by Atlantic Root Network Inc., quickly faded into disuse.

The first problem has never been a serious one in theory or practice. The first thing to note is that a root server resolves very few queries, relatively speaking. Domain name records, which are what associate a domain name and an Internet protocol address, donâ''t change very often, and service providers cache the most common ones.

Queries that canâ''t be resolved by the cache go on to the service providerâ''s domain name server, and then to that of the entity from whom the service provider gets its Internet feed from. Only if a query canâ''t be resolved by such a chain does it end up at the root server (or one of its twelve mirrors). The root server does only one thing: look at the tail portion of the problematic domain nameâ''.com, .org, .uk, .cn, etc.â''and say what organization is responsible for it. Then the query goes back down a chain of name resolutions, reading the domain name dot-by-dot from right to left, until the entity is found that actually assigned the complete domain name to an IP address.

Typically, the companies that run alternative root server issue software patches for Internet service providers and for end-users (either patching the operating system or the browser) that redirect domain name references about their domains to their own domain name servers.

According to Milton Mueller of Syracuse University, who has written a book about the domain name system, thatâ''s pretty much what the Chinese do for Chinese character domain names right now. The Chinese have created a Chinese character equivalent for .com, .net, and .cn. If youâ''re inside China and, say, try to look up a web page with one of these non-Roman endings, a domain name query goes directly to the root server in charge of that top-level domain. Outside China, the patch slaps â''.cnâ'' in ASCII onto the domain name. That forces the query to be sent to the entity that runs the alternative root domains, because itâ''s the same organization that runs the the .cn root server (the ASCII one). Those queries, in other words, get resolved as second-level domain queries, not at the root level. This is not exactly a fracturing of the net. In fact, the point of the patch is the ensure that the net remains unified and that the existing domain name server system doesnâ''t need to change the way it does things.

The solution that ICANN is testing is even more benign than this. Domain names will be translated into a ASCII code that domain name servers will use to do their own internal lookup. Roman alphabet domain names donâ''t have to be translated, though they can be. Non-Roman alphabet domain names will always be translated. This method has already been endorsed in IETF standards documents known as RFCs. ICANN is testing it to make sure that it works in the real world.

Thatâ''s the big change taking place. A name lookup will now take a domain name server another step, and presumably another nanosecond to resolve. Now, Tim and Brooke, how exactly will that fracture the net?

OLPC faces defections while Macbook Air steals crown as cutest computer

olpc-xo-1.jpg

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I spotted one journalist toting an XO Laptop from the One Laptop Per Child consortium (OLPC). It definitely was a geek magnet, he was always surrounded by crowds taking a look at what, as of early Jan 2008, was the cutest little computer on the block. I saw him giving a lot of demos; Iâ''m not sure I actually saw him doing useful work on the tiny thing, and I never got close enough to ask.

But he probably ought to hang on to his XO; it may turn out to be a limited edition collectors item. The devices are selling, some 600,000 so far, mostly to Peru, Uruguay, and Mexico.

Defections, however, are plaguing the project. Nigeria and Libya, two countries that early on said they were committed to buying at least 1 million units each, have opted out. The organization always knew that â''commitmentsâ'' from governments in the developing world are fungible; still, losing these early partners had to have hurt.

Late last year, engineering whiz Mary Lou Jepsen, the organizationâ''s CTO who designed the laptopâ''s screen, left the OLPC. At the Consumer Electronics Show, she announced that she had founded a company called Pixel Qi to commercialize the screen technology for use in computers, cameras, cell phones, and other mobile devices. The screen is widely recognized as one of the most innovative features of the XO, it has both a reflective black and white mode and a backlit color mode, consumes little power, and is readable in both bright sunlight and darkness. The move is being called a spin-out; says its web site: "Pixel Qi is collaborating with OLPC to continuously and dramatically lower the cost of laptops. There is no competition. Pixel Qi has promised to provide components to the OLPC at cost."

Still, this departure doesnâ''t look like good news for OLPC. And Pixel Qi has announced that, besides selling its screens, it will be trying to develop a $75 laptop. (The current price of the XO is around $180; the target was $100.)

Then Intel, one of the OLPCâ''s corporate partners, left the consortium. No one is pretending that departure was amicable; it was followed by a blast of accusations from project founder Nicholas Negroponte involving Intelâ''s attempting to undercut XO sales.

Meanwhile, at Macworld today, Steve Jobs introduced the Macbook Air, product-air.jpgthe thinnest, lightest, laptop on the block, at least for now. If that journalist at CES wants to keep moving in a circle of drooling geeks, heâ''d better put that XO on a shelf and get a Macbook Air.

Messenger flies by Mercury

Yesterday at 2:04 p.m. EST the MESSENGER spacecraft zipped by Mercury in the first of three planned flybys of the planet. IEEE Spectrum wrote about MESSENGER's impending arrival last month. In particular, we focused on how the spacecraft had to be designed to withstand the punishing temperature extremes that close to the sun. The craft has a multilayer sunshade and the most advanced communications array every flown in deep space.

During yesterday's flyby it took images of a side of the planet that has never been photographed before. The satellite's operator, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has video and pictures taken by the MESSENGER here.

Messenger, which is the first spacecraft to reach Mercury since 1974, is on a 7.9-billion-km trek that is should take it around the sun 15 times and past Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times, before it finally settles into an orbit around the sun-blasted innermost planet on 18 March 2011. According to APL's mission timeline, it will be back on 6 October 2008.

Is there an Olympic event in Shortsightedness?

Blade Runner ruled ineligible for Olympic qualifying events

We're living in weird times when someone can compete in the Paralympics but be overqualified for the Olympics.

Earlier today the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field's world governing body, handed down the decision that 21-year-old Oscar Pistorius is ineligible to compete in qualifying events for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Pistorius, generally known as the Blade Runner, was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. But with his state-of-the-art carbon fiber prosthetics-- called Cheetahs-- he has set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meter events. His best times have him nipping at the heels of the 2004 women's races gold medalists. His next stop was supposed to be Beijing.

But in uniquely un-Olympian spirit, the I.A.A.F. has promptly dispatched that lifelong dream. In their statement, the I.A.A.F. said that the Cheetahs "should be considered as technical aids which give him an advantage over other athletes not using them." The Cheetahs, they say, are in "clear contravention" of the rules."

Unwittingly, the Blade Runner has unearthed a whole bunch of people's darkest and most irrational fears.

In a related Times article from 2007, I.A.A.F. director of development Elio Locatelli was quoted saying, "With all due respect, we cannot accept something that provides advantages." He suggested that Pistorius concentrate on the Paralympics. "It affects the purity of sport. Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back."

I can't get over the condescension in the "purity of sport" handwringing-- especially when, in the same breath, Locatelli urges the man with the contraptions to take his game to the Paralympics. Because that's not really sports.

Lest there aren't enough Chicken Littles pecking at poor Mr. Pistorius, the Times unearthed another precious gem:

A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. "Given the arms race nature of competition," will technological advantages cause "athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?" wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute's board of directors. "Is it self-mutilation when you're getting a better limb?"

Shouldn't a member of the board of directors of something called the "Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies" have some passing acquaintance with emerging technologies?

I posed the question to Dean Kamen, the inventor of multiple assistive technologies including the iBot and a new prosthetic arm: Will people start chopping off their legs and replacing them with fake ones?

"It'll be a long, long, long time before most people would want to substitute for the original equipment with anything engineers can make," Kamen says. "That's not to say we might not all be lining up for engineering solutions when what we have is old or broken."

"But the original equipment," he says, "the natural capability of muscles and tendons, driven by energy coming from chemical reactions moving through blood-- it's pretty hard to beat what nature did."

"The I.A.A.F. has got no clue about disabled sport," said Ampie Louw, who has coached Pistorius since 2003, to the Times.

After a cumbersome start, [Pistorius] needs about 30 meters to gain his rhythm. His knees do not flex as readily, limiting his power output. His grip can be unsure in the rain. And when he runs into a headwind or grows fatigued, he must fight rotational forces that turn his prosthetic devices sideways, said Louw.

To recap: Letting Pistorius compete in the qualifying rounds will lead neither to Olympians hacking their legs off, nor to James Bond-style jet packs.

If you take the longer view, it's quite good news that technology is now so advanced that it causes problems with the "able-bodied" versus "disabled" dichotomy. The only problem is that real people like Pistorius have to deal with the subconscious fears of a bunch of hysterical bureaucrats. Can't we get some engineers into the I.A.A.F.?

CES Video Highlights: Ford Shows Off Sync and Travel Link

In his post, "Ford in Sync, But Out of Step," IEEE Spectrum editor Steven Cherry describes the new gadget-friendly features Ford promoted at CES. Everyone's seen the TV ads where the passenger uses Sync to call up a Michael Bolton song on his friend's playlist, but Spectrum wanted a closer look. We hopped in a new Ford Focus with product development manager Gary Jablonski and tested out the features. In the video, you'll notice that, while Sync does work, it definitely takes longer to repond than the commercial makes it seem. The system ably comprehended both Gary and Steven, but I found it annoying to listen to Sync's voice in response, especially when it said "laughing out loud." I asked Jablonski why they didn't just have the computer voice laugh uproariously, but I guess some things are just too creepy.

Sync wasn't the only in-vehicle technology Ford was touting at CES; they also teamed up with Sirius to make a navigation system called Travel Link. As Steven mentioned, the information only travels one way: to your car. In addition, it's clear that Ford hasn't worked out the kinks. Instead of getting Sync software updates through the Travel Link connection, Ford owners will have to download it onto a USB stick at their computer first, and then physically carry it to the car. But the real-time info does seem to give Travel Link an edge over many GPS systems:

Ford has obviously put a lot of time into all of this, working with Microsoft, Sirius, Gracenote, and the others just to make it this far. What do you think of their efforts? Will Sync and Travel Link boost sales? Would you be willing to spend more for a car with voice control?

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