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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?

Public or Private Nanotech Companies Need to Sell Things

Just before the holidays, the New York Times published an article that suggested nanotech companies would start going public with greater regularity soon.

The tacit message of the article is that somehow all that unwarranted promise of instant riches from nanotechnology in the early 2000s were somehow finally going to be realizedâ'¿real soon...as more nanotech start-ups go public.

My question is: Why is going public a good thing? Or even a desired outcome? Going public does not necessarily indicate the health of the commercial markets for nanotechnology or a company. At least thatâ''s my understanding with my capital-markets-101 grasp of market funding.

The stories of publicly funded nanotechnology companies are not pretty. In fact, Unidym, which is mentioned in the article breathlessly as â''hoping to go public in the near futureâ'', is already a subsidiary of publicly traded nanotechnology company, Arrowhead Research that is trading at less than half of its 52-week high.

Unidym and Arrowheadâ''s other recent acquisition, Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. (CNI), which was merged into Unidym, are often touted for their â''strong IP position.â'' In fact, this tale of CNI goes back at least five years when it announced $15 million in seed funding and ended with its sale to Unidym this year for $4 million in stockâ''from another start-up company.

The concept of having â''a strong IP positionâ'' is so overriding in the commercial considerations for US nanotechnology companies that they seem to forget that you need to actually have something to sell.

So millions of dollars are plowed into companies based on this â''strong IP positionâ'' concept and more often than not investors end up with the companies burning through the money just trying to develop something they can sell.

In one of the more hyped failures of nanotechnology in the stock market, Nanosys pulled their IPO at the 11th hour due to â''unfavorable market conditions.â''

Nanosys is one of those â''strong IP positionâ'' companies, so I did a little memory lane of their press releases from 2003 to today. The story goes something like this:

â'¢ Announcing a first and second round of venture financing worth $45 million in addition to $14 million in non-equity grants and contracts

â'¢ To where there technology is described as about to change the world with words like â''They have the money, they have the talent. Now itâ''s just about executionâ''

â'¢ To where there IPO is expected to garner between $350 and $370 million for a company with revenues of $3 million based solely on contract research rather than any product

â'¢ To where there IPO is pulled because it canâ''t get a decent price for the stock

â'¢ To where it raises another $40 million after pulling its IPO and has not attempted an IPO since

On the other hand, you have a privately held company such as Nano-Tex (51% share owned by Burlington Industries) that goes from one success to the next over the same period.

The difference: one company is selling a product and the other has a â''strong IP position.â'' Which one are you going to buy?

CES Video Highlights: Whirlpool Lets You Geek Out Your Fridge

Whirlpool is not the first company that comes to mind when I think of consumer electronics. But on Sunday night, at Digital Experience!, they had a booth set up like everyone else. It turns out that Whirlpool was promoting their top of the line refrigerators, which have a (proprietary) docking port to mount and power a wide variety of high-tech accessories. So far they have partners working on a digital picture frame, a glass whiteboard, an iPod dock, and a tablet PC.

It's not exactly a new idea; refrigerators with televisions in the door have been available to anyone with money to burn for a few years. But making a modular system seems like a brilliant move on Whirlpool's part. They get to add a selling point to their product line without taking on any additional risk themselves. Customers can buy whatever module they want, but it doesn't raise the base cost of the appliance. In addition, Whirlpool makes money licensing what is, essentially, a non-standard power socket.

So check out the video and let me know what you think. Would you pay $600-$700 for a dockable kitchen PC? Would you be more inclined to by a refrigerator if it could play your iPod?

NASA Sets New Dates for Next Shuttle Launches

A month after the original launch date for the current orbiter flight to the space station, known as mission STS-122, the U.S. space agency announced today that it will attempt to re-try to send up the Atlantis shuttle on 7 February. Its schedule was scrapped in December when balky sensors in the spacecraft's external fuel tank failed twice just prior to launch times.

NASA has spent weeks trying to repair the malfunctioning sensors (see "Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks") and now believes it will have the problem under control shortly; but this has caused a knotty backlog in the overall schedule of flights to the International Space Station (ISS). To sort through conflicts on the calendar, the Americans have been working with their Russian counterparts to find compatible dates for the next four missions to the ISS, two by each agency.

Administrators for the two space services have now agreed that Roscosmos will send up its next Progress cargo vessel on 5 February, two days before the rescheduled NASA flight. This will clear up the workload for those in orbit sufficiently that the next mission of the Endeavour shuttle, STS-123, can be moved to the middle of March, clearing the way for a Russian Soyuz flight in early April.

The juggling in the schedules is crucial to getting the next major component of the ISS, the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory, delivered and installed, as the current crew of the ISS has been specially trained to work on the project.

According to the statement today on NASA's Space Shuttle Website, the agency's managers will meet in the coming weeks to address the schedule of remaining shuttle flights beyond STS-123, which is tasked with delivering the first section of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory module, as well as Canada's new robotics system, Dextre, to the space station.

With so many flights, with so much hardware, from so many nations, someone should be keeping their fingers crossed that all goes according to (the revamped and crowded) schedule over the next few months. The world will literally be watching.

Dance To The Music

The iPod and iPhone are pretty hot products here in Las Vegas. Earlier this week Spectrum reported on the first speaker system that you can plug an iPhone into without any pesky radio interference.

But new iPod accessories arenâ''t limited to the the Consumer Electronic Show. At the 2008 AVN Exposition last week, there are not one, but two different vibrators that you can hook an iPod into. Yes, vibrators. AVN is the largest trade show in the world for the adult entertainment industry. This yearâ''s show, which started on the day CES ended, brought together more than 12 000 marketers and executives to show off their latest wares.

Most of the adult entertainment goods here donâ''t involve electrotechnology, but more than few of them do. And it seems to be the latest trend. Vibrators are a popular item at adult stores everywhere and for years theyâ''ve included batteries. And now they include digital music.

One, the OhMiBod, been around since July 2006, though two models are newly released here at the show. The other, the Music Massager, by Funline, is just leaving a California factory this month.

Both models vary their vibrations to the beat and rhythm of the music. When Suki Dunham, co-owner of OhMiBod plugged my iPhone into the OhMiBod, we noticed a dearth of songs that were, well, vibrant. Basically, I had too many show tunes and vocalist tracks and not enough Queen or AC/DC. (I forgot I had a hip-album by Eminem.) I held the OhMiBod in my hand and started three charming but sedate songs before trying Natasha Bedingfeldâ''s hit, â''Unwritten,â'' which finally had enough oomph. Better was the Fergy song â''Clumsy,â'' played from Dunhamâ''s iPod.

The OhMiBod is a single unit. A DSP discerns the musical qualities that get translated into the vibratorâ''s pulsations. The main design challenge, Dunham said, was to get the vibrations strong enough. Two AA batteries go into the base of the vibrator. A cord splits out to two audio-jacks, so that you can listen to your music as well as let it control the vibrator. Itâ''s worth noting, though, that you might be the mood for one kind of song song kinaesthetically and another kind auditorily.

The Music Massager is a little different. A base unit plugs into an outlet, and the vibrator and the iPod plug into it. In fact, thereâ''s yet another audio jack port, so that you can, again, listen to the music. Even though it has a separate unit delivering the power, the Music Massager runs off three AAA batteries.

The Music Massager wouldnâ''t play songs off my iPhone, probably because the audio jacks arenâ''t quite long enough (the iPhoneâ''s audio port is a bit different from that of the iPod). The OhMiBod is more expensive, at US $69, versus $45. The company is working now on a wireless model.

Follow Up: Con Ed Identifies Cause of Steam Blast

Recently, Con Ed of New York concluded that the cause of the deadly steam explosion in Midtown Manhattan on 18 July last summer was the result of faulty maintenance that led to a pipeline condition known as a bubble-collapse water hammer. The afternoon rush-hour blast, which caused one fatality and sent dozens to emergency rooms, sent a spectacular geyser of steam and debris hundreds of feet into a high-rise canyon adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, setting off a panic that sent the city into red-alert status.

We covered the steam pipe explosion in a Tech Talk item the following day (please see "New York City Rocked by Steam Pipe Blast") and a backgrounder on the technology of district steam power generation in our August online issue, "Source of New York Steam Blast Is a Literal Mystery".

In a prepared statement from Con Ed on the steam pipe blast, the utility said that the accident 'was caused by a bubble-collapse water hammer that generated a momentary force against the pipe's wall that was more than seven times greater than the pipe's normal operating pressure'. The finding was the result of months of analysis by two consulting firms that specialize in such investigations. The company stated that it had already conducted inspections throughout its district steam system to check for similar conditions to prevent further occurrences. It also said it had instituted new policies and procedures for the maintenance of the system going forward.

â''We are committed to operating the steam system in a safe and reliable manner,â'' said William G. Longhi, Con Ed's senior vice president of central operations. â''We are also committed to applying what weâ''ve learned to enhance the safety of our equipment in a complicated underground environment.â''

Upon hearing of the announcement from the company, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded: "I'm glad to see that Con Ed at least did an investigation and that investigation showed that it was their actions that caused it, and that's the first step in making sure it doesn't happen again."

The maintenance work blamed for the chain of events leading to the explosion was performed by Team Industrial Services, of Alvin, Tex. According to Con Ed, workers for the contractor's New Jersey affiliate applied too much epoxy to a leaky flange on a steam trap that vented condensate (or hot water) from the pipeline section buried deep beneath the intersection of Lexington Avenue and East 41st Street. Some of the epoxy material ended up inside the trap.

On the afternoon of 18 July, torrential rain swamped Manhattan. The rainwater soon settled into the earth the district steam pipes are surrounded by. The seeping cool water then came into contact with the compromised main line and created a "steam bubble" inside, which set off the water hammer problem, according to Con Ed.

In its words:

The steam bubbleâ''s contact with the cooled condensate caused the steam to condense (change) to water very rapidly, creating a void in the pipe and causing the surrounding water in the pipe to rush to fill the void left as the steam bubble collapsed. The rushing water slammed against water rushing from the other side, creating a large momentary pressure pulse, likely in excess of 1,200 pounds per square inch. This event, called a bubble-collapse water hammer, caused the pipe rupture.

Further details on the analysis of the spectacular accident are being posted to Con Ed's Website, the company reported. It also said that its new action plan--which calls for replacement of all 1654 steam traps in the system, enhanced rain response procedures, new repair oversight protocols, research and development on steam trap design, and other measures--will be immediately made public.

This will most likely come as too little, too late for most of the individuals and enterprises severely impacted by the accident. Many lawsuits have been filed in the intervening months, and more will surely follow as circumstances are sorted out. In the meantime, the engineers who conducted the investigation have provided a foundation for understanding how such trivial matters as properly sealing a valve can have such devastating consequences. Once again, the old adage of "taking care of the little things" has proven to be time-tested advice.

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