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Nuclear arms control talks start: there's a role for reliability engineering

The United States and Russia are scheduled to hold talks in Geneva starting today and lasting until 21 November to craft a new nuclear weapons treaty. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) was signed in Moscow in 1991 and expires in December 2009. There's much haggling over what should replace it, with complications coming from a U.S.-European missile shield. It would do for both sides to consider the real risks of nuclear war involved.

Earlier this year, Martin Hellman, the co-inventor of public key cryptography, tried just that. He applied reliability engineering methods to figure the rate of failure for nuclear deterrence. Though it's not the only possible trigger of a nuclear confrontation, Hellman focused on a "Cuban Missile Type Crisis" as the cause. See our story last April for Hellman's fascinatng equation for armageddon, but I've pasted the rather disturbing results here:

The result is a range from 2 chances in 10 000 per year to 5 chances in 1000 per year for just this one type of trigger mechanism. The values are valid only for the Cold War years, writes Hellman. But that doesnâ''t make them irrelevant at a time when relations between the United States and Russia are deteriorating; India and an unstable Pakistan have acquired atomic weaponry; and military planners from Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul worry about whether a nuclear-armed China would go to war to reclaim Taiwan.

Hellman's careful to say that he's not necessarily advocating complete disarmament. After all there is probably risk to not having a nuclear deterrent, too. Instead, like a true academic, he just wants somebody, such as the National Academy of Engineering, to do a far more nuanced analysis than his own; so that policy makers and the public have a real understanding of what the risks of nuclear strategies really are. Check out his website devoted to the cause here.

Round-Up of Coverage on Royal Commissionâ¿¿s Nanomaterials Report

Both the mainstream press and nanotechnology-related blogs have been furiously covering the recent report from the UKâ''s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on the potential risks of new nanomaterials.

In my previous post, I alluded to some of these. But it might be worth providing a brief round-up of both the news coverage and editorial comment.


Richard Jonesâ'' Soft Machines Blog covers it here.

Andrew Maynardâ''s 2020 Science Blog covers it here.

Cientificaâ''s TNTLog covers it here.

For the mainstream press, I have limited the list somewhat just to reflect the differing tones given to the story:


Financial Times

The Daily Mail

The coverage of this story still seems to be centered around the UK press. We'll keep an eye on the story to see how international it becomes.

Researchers Use Hubble to Detect New Giant Planet

Chalk up another breakthrough for the Hubble Space Telescope.

The orbiting science platform has detected a gaseous exoplanet three times the mass of Jupiter 25 light-years away near a star in the constellation Piscis Australis. Astronomers trained the Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys on the star Fomalhaut in 2004 to capture visible-light images of protoplanetary debris approximately 21.5 billion miles across and having a sharp inner edge, according to a statement from NASA today.

A NASA team led by Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley, proposed in 2005 that the debris ring was being affected by a large planet near it. Newer data sent from Hubble in 2006 has been under study by the Kalas team for the last two years and has now been released, published in an article in the journal Science. Their research concludes that an exoplanet, dubbed Fomalhaut b, about 119 astronomical units from the star is responsible for the gravitational influence around it.

The above image (courtesy NASA) is an artist's rendering of a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut.

"Fomalhaut is the gift that keeps on giving," said team member Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md. "Following the unexpected discovery of its dust ring, we have now found an exoplanet at a location suggested by analysis of the dust ring's shape. The lesson for exoplanet hunters is 'follow the dust'."

NASA said future observations by Hubble's (newly revived) cameras will attempt to see the planet in infrared light and will look for evidence of water vapor clouds in the atmosphere of Fomalhaut b.

(Please see Hubble Telescope Back in the Photography Business for an entry on the Hubble's recent troubles.)

(Micro)Power to the People Featured at 2008 Tech Awards

Last night San Joseâ''s Tech Museum of Innovation presented its annual Tech Awards, honoring technology benefiting humanity. The 25 finalists, drawn from 650 nominations from 68 countries, had developed devices and programs to address issues in healthcare, the environment, and education, as well as more general needs of developing nations. Some innovations use relatively simple technology to turn local waste or weeds into building materials or fuel; some rely on advanced technology, like flexible solar cells made from nanomaterials or three-dimensional computer displays.

Before the three winners were announced, I had a chance to chat with some of the honoreesâ''the Tech Museum calls them laureatesâ''about their projects. Many involved power and energy in one form or another, either saving energy, like NComputing, a company that enables large groups of users to simultaneously use one computer, with dramatic power savings. Or generating energy from novel fuels, like VWP, a German company designing tractor engines optimized for running on pure plant oil, and the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which has developed a process for converting an invasive plant that had been destroying the cheetahsâ'' savannah habitats into a clean-burning fuel log.

IMG_2493.JPGWhat struck me most, however, was the way that many of these entrepreneurs are redefining the problem of power generation and distribution in the developing world. Hari Sharan [photo, left], chair of D.E.S.I Power, based in Bangalore, India, told me, â''The centralized system of power distribution has failed the villages.â'' The problem, he explained, is that bringing power from a central generating facility out to small villages just doesnâ''t make economic sense, because there are no customers in the village.

So D.E.S.I, while it does build power generating facilities, using biomass gasification, does not expect to survive by simply offering power for sale. Instead, it expects that around each generation station a host of small businesses will emerge, selling what power creates.

â''Light,â'' for example, says Sharan. â''A local entrepreneur could collect portable lights from 50 households, bring them in for recharging, and then deliver them back.â''

D.E.S.I has five units running in villages so far, and is on track to have 100 built within the next three to four years.

IMG_2495.JPGSunlabob, based in Laos, another Tech Awards Laureate, is also bringing power to the people. Like D.E.S.I., it relies on what, in the computer world, would be called a â''Sneakernet,â'' that is, power is moved by being walked from place to place, instead of sent over a wired network. Sunlabobâ''s solar-powered charging stations charge individual battery-operated lamps; a local entrepreneur then rents these lamps to households, charging for the amount of hours of light used. Sunlabob CEO Andy Schroeter [photo, right] says at about 30 cents for 10 hours of light, the cost is much lower than kerosene, which is what many households in the developing world use for light today. Sunlabob has some 2500 stations installed in Laos, and is expanding in Cambodia, Tanzania, and Afghanistan.

IMG_2488.JPGIn the Sierra Madre area of Mexico, light is also an essential and hard-to-obtain resource, says Frano Violich. The Huichol people rely on the handicrafts they make, mostly textile art and beadwork, for income. A good light can give them a few valuable extra hours a day to work. It can also improve educational opportunities; children typically travel long distances for school, by the time they get home it is usually too dark to study, Violich says. The Portable Light Project, started by Violich and Sheila Kennedy, is providing kits containing flexible solar panels, cell phone batteries, and LEDs that local craftspeople can integrate into the traditional woven bags [photo, left] both men and women carry constantly (for Huichol clothing does not have pockets). They also provide patterns so craftspeople can create reflective housings to magnify the light from the LED.

The winners of $50,000 cash prizes, one in each of five categories (environment, economic development, education, equality, and health), were the Cheetah Conservation Fund, D.E.S.I. Power, the Digital Study Hall, Build Change, and Star Syringe. The awards are sponsored by Applied Materials, Intel, Accenture, Microsoft, Santa Clara University, The Swanson Foundation, and the Fogarty Institute for Innovation.

For a complete list of the laureates, click here.

Obama's Open Source CTO


Yesterday, the Obama people created a new site called, a feedback forum that opens the floor to suggestions: What should be the CTO's top priorities?

I hope Spectrum readers are well-represented here.

I'm already excited about the Obama administration just for the way he's doing business as president-elect. He could do worse than trying to harness the wisdom of crowds. Regardless of who you voted for, you'll agree that a White House CTO will be a heck of a lot more useful than a Drug Czar.

via BoingBoing

Hysteria versus Reason in Assessing Nanotechnology Risk

The UK approach to examining and assessing the risk of nanomaterials seems to come from two polar opposites: overheated hysteria and chilly rationality.

In one corner, you have the British tabloid press ratcheting up the fear factor with Armageddon-like headlines like the one highlighted over at TNTLog that reads: â''Tiny but toxic: Nanoparticles with asbestos-like properties found in everyday goodsâ''.

In the other, you have venerable institutions like the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering trying to bring reasoned and researched recommendations to the powers that be.

Unfortunately, the UK is not alone in this approach as it represents more or less how the rest of the world seems to be addressing the matter. First, there is quiet, reasoned research that suggests government look at the associated risks of nanomaterials and how they might be ameliorated. Then the government ignores the recommendations since it canâ''t be bothered by anything that isnâ''t shouted at them by a mob. Finally, sooner or later, the mob begins shouting.

This little scenario is being played out right now in the UK, and it should serve as a lesson to us all. If governments ignore the scientists in shaping their regulations and guidelines, they will likely end up being forced to heed the screaming mob. The result will be far inferior regulations that will likely be unable to balance the need for public safety with needed innovation.

Innovation in the Auto Industry...with Nanotechnology?

With US taxpayers facing the prospect of bailing out the US auto industry, which has been described by more than a few as populated by visionless management and a business culture hostile to innovation, can nanotechnology be used to finally bring some much needed technological advances into its product lines?

The long-time nanotechnology blogger Howard Lovy at Nanobot presents some possibilities for how nanotechnology is fueling innovation in the auto industry. While it is good to have Mr. Lovy blogging again, and he is certainly someone who is uniquely qualified to write on both nanotechnology and the auto industry, I am hard pressed to extend his optimism for the automobile to the innovative sensibilities of Detroit automakers.

In the Nanobot piece, Mr. Lovy points to the continued investment by GE into the battery maker A123Systems, which â''uses nanotechnology to produce rechargeable lithium-ion batteries,â'' as another sign of â''nano powering the auto revolutionâ''.

The problem is that the examples he cites in the article involve GE (while quite a large multi-national, it is not an automaker), A123Systems, and the all electric Tesla, the product of one man with a vision. All these companies are quite different than Detroitâ''s big three automakers.

Unfortunately, if the US government provides another bailout (we can consider the $25 billion in loan guarantees already provided the equivalent of a bailout) to US automakers, we can likely count on the money NOT being spent on innovation but rather on ways to resist changing while staying in business.

A Tale of Three Rulings

The big news last month that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission opened up the so-called TV â''white spacesâ'' buried two other announcements that on any other day would have been big stories. Both were merger approvals — with what the agency euphemistically calls "conditions."

The first merger was Clearwireâ''s takeover of Sprintâ''s WiMax venture. The second allowed Verizonâ''s to swallow up Alltel's 13 million subscribers.

The Clearwire deal was straightforwardly and enthusiastically approved. The Verizon deal, making the fifth-largest carrier in the nation disappear, not so much.

The FCC consists of five Commissioners, whose terms run independently of presidential administrations. At the moment and for a while, Republicans hold a 3-2 majority, so the loyal opposition on the FCC is represented by Michael Copps, the senior of the two Democrat commissioners. Copps called the Clearwire transaction â''good newsâ''really good newsâ'' and said the new WiMAX network will

provide millions of Americans with an additional option in the market for high-speed fixed broadband accessâ''which is currently a duopoly or worse between cable and phone companies. The new network will also provide millions of Americans with a new option for mobile broadband Internet accessâ''also currently a duopoly or worse between incumbent providers. So this counts as very good news for American consumers.

We at IEEE Spectrum agree, having made the network one of our five winning projects of 2008 (see "Winner: Sprint's Broadband Gamble").

Copps wasnâ''t as enthusiastic about the Verizon-Alltel deal. The FCC required some divestitures in specific markets, but he noted that even so, the new network would be the largest in the U.S., not just in terms of subscribers (about 80 million) but terrain. â''Although Alltel is by far the smaller of the two carriers when it comes to customers, its network covers a staggering amount of rural territory.â''

The combined entity will have an enormous geographic footprint, and the combination of the two networks will substantially reduce consumer choice.

Todayâ''s merger is also seriously bad news for smaller carriers who rely on roamingâ''and their customers. The reason is that the new, merged network will be the only game in town when it comes to roaming in many regions of the country. Smaller carriers that rely on roaming contracts to provide nationwide service will see a critical partner eliminated in rural areas. This development may even put some smaller carriers out of businessâ''thus further consolidating the wireless marketplace. The creation of an ever more dominant carrier will also have ripple effects in many other parts of the wireless marketplaceâ''tipping the balance even more towards the network operator when it comes to dealing with handset manufacturers, content providers, application designers and the many other companies that will be forced to ask for â''permission to innovate.â''

The U.S. is huge, geographically, and the only way it can have four nationwide providers is with a variety of roaming agreements. When carriers use the same frequencies, the two CDMA carriers (Verizon and Sprint) or the two GSM carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile) can can cary each otherâ''s calls. In other cases, they rent out space on their towers for their competitorâ''s radios. Often, however, the tower owner is another company entirely, which provides the service or space. As Copps notes, in vast, stretches of the country, that company has been Alltel.

The FCC didnâ''t ignore this issue, but Copps declared himself disappointed in the final ruling.

The main conditions we secure today are a commitment by Verizon Wireless to extend existing roaming contracts for four years and to maintain Alltelâ''s existing GSM network â''indefinitely.â'' These provisions are better than nothingâ''and better than what was originally proposed when this item was circulatedâ''but I cannot say that they answer more than a portion of my concerns. And I am disappointed that discussions suggesting a seven year roaming commitment did not end successfully.

The Republican party prides itself as being â''business-friendly,â'' but that can mean different things at different times. Sometimes it involves making decisions that promote competition, and sometimes it promotes the interests of existing businesses at the expense of competition. The Democrats try to balance the same interests, of course, and the differences between the two parties are sometimes little more than a question of where to place the fulcrum.

The conflict between these two forms of being business-friendly often shows itself when there is a limited resource at issue, and in the 21st century, few resources are more limitedâ''and valuableâ''than radio frequencies.

And so, ultimately, the three FCC decisions are all parts of the same puzzleâ''creating more competition in the Clearwire case by helping a big business get bigger; reducing competition in the Verizon case by letting a big company be taken over by an already-huge one; and in the white space ruling, trying to increase the supply of the scarce resource so as to not have to choose between the two interests at all. Only time will tell if the FCC got the balance right. At stake lies the utility of our cellphonesâ''perhaps the most powerful technology for communicating ever invented.

Indian Space Probe Now Orbiting the Moon

In an historic first for the Indian space program, its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has entered orbit around the moon.

According to a report from the Press Trust of India today, the Chandrayaan has been inserted into a long, looping polar orbit of the moon that brings the spacecraft to as near as 200 kilometers of the lunar surface. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) indicated that all of the craft's systems were operating nominally. Additional burns of the Chandrayaan's thruster will bring it into increasingly closer orbits in the days ahead. These will bring the craft to its operational circular orbit from pole to pole of 100 km, from which it will conduct a string of scientific experiments (see video below).

One of the first tests Chandrayaan will conduct, according to ISRO, is the firing of its Moon Impact Probe onto the lunar crust to study techniques for a possible future landing.

"We will study Chandrayaan-1â''s final orbit of 100 km by 100 km above the moon for a day or two," Project Director M. Annadurai said in an article in the The Hindu newspaper online. "We will then release the Moon Impact Probe."

(Please see our previous posts on Chandrayaan-1 in this space here.)

Who is Hiring Technologists

It's ugly out there. The Dow continues to falter and everyone's digging in for a long recession. But some companies see silver in that cloud--lots of talent dropped in the street looking for a new home. Rafe Needleman over at CNET is doing everyone a huge favor by charting the companies that are hiring programmers and engineers in drips and droves.


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