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Olympic Tech in China

Let the Games begin!

The torch has made it to Beijing, the world's elite athletes have assembled, and the opening ceremonies are now just two days away. Soon gold medals in some 300 events will be up for grabs.

At the Summer Olympic Games, the challenge for the athletes will be to embody the creed "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" through their superb physical and mental abilities. Still, there are going to be a few cases where technology will offer a helping hand. We'll take a look at such cases in a special blog during the Games over the coming weeks.

To jump right into the pool, let's discuss one of the most dramatic instances of athletic tech appearing in Beijing: a swimsuit engineered with space exploration in mind. According to a report from NASA, the U.S. swim team will be outfitted with suits made of an advanced material tested in one of the space agency's laboratories.

Known as the Speedo LZR Racer, the high-tech suits for both the men's and women's squads were developed by Warnaco Group Inc., of New York City. The secret to their advanced design lies in the material the firm's researchers settled on with feedback from NASA engineers. Warnaco's Speedo division calls the fabric FastSkin, which it developed by testing dozens of materials for surface smoothness.

The technical key to improving the performance times of swimmers (beyond enhancing training regimens) is cutting the drag the athletes create as they move through the water. So Speedo approached the space agency for a paid research project in one of NASA's low-speed wind tunnels. The tests took place at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The winning material was the one that showed the least resistance to the flow of air moving over it, or the least drag. Because air and water have similar dynamics in motion, the Speedo researchers concluded that the new fabric selected to be FastSkin would offer swimmers the best chance to lower their times.

PHOTO: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

And have they ever. At the U.S. Olympic trials, world records fell like dominoes. The Americans wearing the new swimsuits have topped 48 of 50 world records since the LZR Racer debuted in February.

The leader of the men's squad, Michael Phelps (pictured center above), has his sights set on winning eight gold medals in Beijing (see this Reuters report), which would eclipse the record set by fellow countryman Mark Spitz in the water at the Munich Games in 1972. Phelps won six gold medals four years ago in Athens. Should he win just four more events this year, he would become the all-time top medalist in all Olympic sports, surpassing the nine victories posted by legends Larissa Latynina, Carl Lewis, and Paavo Nurmi.

The Speedo LZR Racer could be just the thing to give him a physical and mental edge to pull off his ambitions. He was recently quoted as saying of the outfit, "When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket."

Back at NASA's Langley facility, someone who works on rockets and the components they carry into space will be following the performances of the U.S. team with particular interest. Aerospace engineer Steve Wilkinson, who admits to knowing very little about swimming (but a lot about laminar and turbulent boundary layer physics) said he will be wondering as he watches the swim meet whether the champions are wearing the material he tested in his lab.

"I'm also going to be paying very close attention to the time," Wilkinson added.

Future Combat Systems: Not just cute little robots and flying trashcans

"Please, just don't call it cute," pleads one of the Fort Bliss soldiers, watching my face get all mushy as I gaze into the thermal cameras and laser range finders of the little surveillance robot. Earlier, I watched it rear up like a dog and peek over the ledge of a window to assure the combat team behind it that no surprises waited inside the building.


SUGV (small unmanned ground vehicle) and I stare into each others' eyes.

The morning's live combat exercise was available to anyone with the intestinal fortitude to get up at 0400 and make the jaw-rattling drive out to the Texas desert. There, soldiers tested the latest and greatest in military acronym technology--SUGV, UUGS and TUGS, UAS and B-kits--the major cornerstones of Future Combat Systems.

Future Combat Systems, the army's modernization program, touts itself as a seamless integration of soldier and "peripherals," where the soldier is the central processing unit but instead of being limited to his own god-given sensors--eyes, ears and so on--he has at his command a networked array of additional sensors. Now he can see around corners. Before soldiers go into a building they send SUGV, the small unmanned ground vehicle. The UAS (a hovering "eye in the sky" they've lovingly nicknamed the Flying Trashcan) provides early warning, among other things, for mortar attacks or IEDs.


The UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is for obvious reasons also known as the flying trashcan.

Media coverage of FCS has focused on the implications the adoption of video game technology: an Ender's Game-like dystopian future military in which young boy soldiers impersonally pick off enemies with Xbox controllers. The part about the Xbox controllers is right, but the rest deserves subtler interpretation.

FCS is not just about showering soldiers with cool technology, but making sure the technology actually helps. This should be good news for anyone tired of the old Donald Rumsfeld military paradigm, according to which you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. That thinking also extends to the tools you go to war with, like recent generations of the PackBot which according to people familiar with the situation have been a nightmare for soldiers; among other things, their non-xbox controllers have been difficult to use, and the batteries don't work. Soldiers need real-time response when their technology hurts more than it helps.

The military is often accused of being "always prepared to fight the last war." Part of the reason is the stovepiping of intelligence. The troops on the ground understand first what's happening--whether some military vehicle is getting blown to shreds by IEDs and should no longer be used, or whether some piece of equipment is performing really well. But until recently, that information could not be absorbed by the people in charge in real time.

FCS, according to its proponents, is as much a technology initiative as an attempt to redefine how the army gathers information about itself. Now, when a soldier says that the controls on a SUGV are useless, within a couple of weeks the army rolls out a much more intuitive Xbox controller. Or, in the case of the flying trashcan, the camera didn't tilt adequately. A few weeks after a soldier made that observation, the UAS was outfitted with a Gimbel camera that swivels omnidirectionally.

To that end, the army has created an entire brigade of beta testers at Fort Bliss. The Future Combat Systems Evaluation Brigade Combat Team was plucked from all over the world to serve for two years as army's tech guinea pigs. Not the worst job in the world.


Soldiers in the FCS Evaluation Brigade Combat Team use the SUGV during a cordon-and-search exercise.

U.S. Car Manufacturers Retreat on Fuel Efficiency

Major auto makers supplying the U.S. market, having previously supported the governmentâ''s effort to boost average fleet efficiency to 31.6 mpg by 2015 from 25 mpg today, are now having serious misgivings, according to a report in todayâ''s Wall Street Journal. Ford and Toyota are among those that had expressed confidence in their ability to meet the new goal but now are complaining about the scale and pace of what the National Highway Safety Administration proposes. Toyota is quoted as saying that the implementing regs are â''substantially front-loadedâ'' and â''increase at a rate much greater than anticipatedâ'' by law.

It Takes a Substation

Itâ''s just a local story to be sure, but a New York Times article today does a nice job of describing what it take to build an electrical substation in a modern megacity. Conventionally substationsâ''the transformer and switching arrays where transmission voltage is stepped down for district distributionâ''are just surrounded behind barbed wire in what otherwise might be vacant lots, easily recognizable by their large ceramic insulators. But in New York Cityâ''s South Bronx, Con Edâ''s latest station is housed in a nice brick building with fake windows, which might easily be mistaken for a fancy condo. Built at a cost of $300 million, the substation has a number of green elements such a grated vaults that allow for natural circulation and placement of huge tanks containing insulating liquid in motes, to contain any leakage. Seamless 10-inch steel pipes, which are not something bought off the shelf, sheathe the cables that enough current â''to power a small Caribbean country.â''

Beware of the Solar Breakthrough

With everybody from venture capitalists to green-minded homeowners keen to see breakthroughs in solar energy, itâ''s getting harder all the time to separate the hype from the reality. Last weekâ''the last week of Julyâ''a team at MIT announced it had achieved a major advance that they claimed could make photovoltaic energy economically viable at last: a method of storing PV-generated electricity at night, by means of a new catalyst for separating oxygen from the hydrogen in water. The general idea is that the hydrogen gleaned from the water could be used to power fuel cells, so that none of the solar electricity would be wasted.

The most notable thing about this announcement is the fabulously extravagant and overheated language in which it was made. A write-up of the principal investigatorâ''s article, distributed by Science magazine to journalists, described the innovation as â''revolutionary,â'' â''a huge leap,â'' â''unprecedented,â'' and â''nirvana.â'' Only in the seventh paragraph of that release do we hear the investigator express confidence that â''this is going to work.â'' So it doesnâ''t exactly work yet? Or, to judge from an EE Times write-up, it probably works about as well as a well-established method for separating oxygen from hydrogen, but perhaps more cost-effectively.

To take another example, First Solar, a relatively young company based in Tempe, Arizona, has suddenly been getting a lot of attention with claims that it has figured out a way to make PV material at an installation cost of $1 per wattâ''though the global average for solar installations was in the range of $6 or $7 per watt last year. How plausible is that claim? Well, itâ''s hard to know, because as a feature article appearing in this monthâ''s IEEE Spectrum magazine points out, â''The company does not talk to reporters. Not at all.â''

That article was written by a freelancer and edited by a colleague, but I can attest to the accuracy of its singular point. A few months ago I (that is to say, a journalist) was asked at the last minute to moderate a session at a big PV meeting in San Diego, in which the CEO of First Solar was supposed to be one of the panelists. At the last moment he reneged. A month or so later it just so happened I was at a meeting near Tempe, so I called First Solar and asked if I could come over to take a look at their breakthrough technology. The answer, after a handful of phone messages and a couple of e-mails? No.

This week I was contacted by a small company that has been working with a national laboratory to develop an improved way of depositing PV on a variety of materials, so that, for example, solar cells can be incorporated right into a buildingâ''s shell. The company recently won an r&d award, prompting it to contact journalists. The chief technology officer of the company described the companyâ''s technology to me in careful detail, but he refused to make any claims about how much the process would ultimately cost or when exactly they would be able to introduce their first products. Now that got my attention.

NASA's Phoenix Lander Confirms Water on Mars

The answer to an age-old question has finally been revealed. The managers of the Phoenix Mars Lander said yesterday that their experimental equipment had detected water on the surface of the Red Planet.

According to a news report from NASA, tools onboard the Phoenix were able to scoop a sample of Martian surface material and then heat it in a mini-oven. An instrument then detected the presence of liquid water in the mixture.

"We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). "We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

The U.S. space agency said the positive results so far from the Phoenix have prompted administrators to extend the spacecraft's mission through the end of September, adding five more weeks to its experimental activities.

"Phoenix is healthy and the projections for solar power look good, so we want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The next big issue NASA hopes to answer will be much trickier than the unmistakable presence of water in Martian soil: Whether water was ever able to sustain substances that could have led to life on the planet.

"Mars is giving us some surprises," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "We're excited because surprises are where discoveries come from."

U.S. Air Regulation Reversals Are Costly for Industry

The dramatic reversals in U.S. air regulation, reported and discussed two weeks ago, are proving nettlesome not just for environmentalists and for some of the parties that had challenged rules in court, but for the energy industry generally. John Dizard reports this week in Londonâ''s Financial Times that utilities had spent upwards of $75 billion for SO2 and NOx retrofits to meet the rules that now have been overturned. Dizard quotes a source at the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani saying that just the lost value of SO2 emissions allowances could come to $15-20 billion. PPL, a Pittsburgh utility, has announced losses associated with defunct NOx allowances could come to almost $100 million.

NASA turns 50 today

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. The agency started operations on Oct 1 of that year, almost a year after the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 stunned the world.

In its 50 years of existence, NASA has accomplished many milestones, but probably the most important is that it has expanded our horizons. The many pictures from the lunar missions, the Voyager expeditions and the Hubble Space Telescope have forever changed our view of the cosmos. In particular, one picture stands out: the Earth as a frail blue dot photographed in the darkness over the lunar desert.

To celebrate its anniversary, NASA has just launched a historical image archive that will enthrall space buffs:

The BBC has also created a page devoted to NASA's 50th anniversary that has footage of President John F. Kennedy's pledge to reach the moon and Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon:

Randy Pausch, Inspirational Computer Scientist (1960-2008)

The lecturer who urged his students to go out and achieve their childhood dreams has succumbed to a disease he fought against in the public spotlight. Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University died on Friday, 25 July, of pancreatic cancer. He was 47.

Pausch was diagnosed with the disease in August 2006. A year later, he was told the cancer had spread. Coincidentally, he had already accepted an invitation to speak at Carnegie Mellon in a format called The Last Lecture, in which invitees are asked to ruminate about what they would tell others if they knew they had one last chance to impart some final wisdom. Pausch went ahead with his presentation, despite the fact that his doctors had estimated that he had only a few more months to live.


THE LAST LECTURER: IEEE Member Randy Pausch brought a love of life and learning to the students he mentored, helping them to achieve their dreams.

On 18 September 2007, Pausch delivered a speech entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" before a packed lecture hall on the Pittsburgh campus. As he approached the podium, he was given a standing ovation from the hundreds in attendance. The word was out regarding his health.

In his talk that day, Pausch urged his listeners to work vigorously to overcome the obstacles life presents, to help others achieve their goals, and to seize the moment, because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think."

As fate would have, the presentation was videotaped and, thanks to the global reach of the Internet, it went viral, reaching millions.

Pausch was approached by a publisher to expand his remarks into a book. The result was The Last Lecture, which became an overnight success (and is currently No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller Advice List). That led to appearances on American TV talk shows, from "Good Morning America" to "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

With this whirlwind of attention from the media, Pausch found himself drafted into a position as unofficial spokesperson for persons with pancreatic cancer, appearing in public service announcements. In March of this year, he testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, advocating for increased government funding for cancer research.

A World of His Making

Pausch was born in Baltimore on 23 October 1960. His family moved to Columbia, Md., when he was a boy. It was an omen, of sorts, for the young man, as the town was the first fully pre-planned community in the United States, emphasizing educational resources upfront as a premium in its urban design.

Pausch received his bachelor's degree in computer science from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., in 1982. He earned his Ph.D. in the same field from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. While pursuing his doctorate, he worked briefly in Silicon Valley for Adobe Systems and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Nonetheless, he decided that education was his true calling, so he took a teaching position at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he worked from 1988 to 1997, specializing in virtual reality systems and human-computer interaction.

As he told the audience in his Last Lecture speech, Pausch pursued his personal dreams by working for a time for Walt Disney Imagineering and game maker Electronic Arts in California while on sabbaticals.

In 1997, Pausch accepted a position as an Associate Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon, where he co-founded the university's Entertainment Technology Center. His course Building Virtual Worlds soon became a favorite among computer science students, as well as other undergraduates. To help novices understand the basics of using software to design virtual simulations, he invented the Alice programming environment, an intuitive Java-based 3D scripting tool, which Pausch got Electronic Arts to sponsor as an open-source project on behalf of Carnegie Mellon.

An IEEE member, Pausch received many honors for his work during his short life, including the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator award, a Lilly Foundation Teaching Fellowship, and the Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He published extensively in technical journals, especially those of the ACM and IEEE. He also co-authored the textbook for the language he created, Learning to Program with Alice (Prentice Hall, New York, 2005), along with several other books on software.

Still, it will be his final book, The Last Lecture (Hyperion, New York, 2008), for which he will be most remembered. Its popularity (currently ranked by Amazon as its No. 2 bestseller) will ensure his place among the ranks of writers who have popularized science.

In May 2008, Pausch was named by Time magazine as one of the "World's Top-100 Most Influential People."

After his Last Lecture presentation last September, a spokesperson for Electronic Arts said the company will honor Pausch by creating a memorial scholarship for women, in recognition of Pausch's support of women in computer science and engineering. And Carnegie Mellon has set up an honorary fund in his memory.

Pausch passed away at his home in Chesapeake, Va., last Friday surrounded by his wife Jai and their three children: Dylan, 6, Logan, 4, and Chloe, 2.

Tonight at 10pm EST, the ABC network will present a special documentary on his life appropriately entitled The Last Lecture: A Celebration of Life.

It will undoubtedly include a reference to a line he delivered in his famous presentation: "We can't change the cards we're dealt, just how we play the hand."


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