Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch

Watch%20front.jpg

My refurbished Pulsar P2 "Astronaut" LED watch came in the mail today, an early Xmas gift to myself that I've been anticipating for more than ten years. That's about how long it's been since my dad gave me his old watch and I've been looking for someone to fix it ever since.

A recent fascination with the new crop of LED watches coming out of Japan led me to pull the old P2 out of the bottom drawer of my dresser a couple of weeks ago and renew my search for a repair person capable of replacing the battery. My first stop was a jeweler in downtown Minneapolis who had assured me over the phone that he could fix the watch no problem. You can guess how that turned out. Oh, they don't make batteries for that watch anymore. And there's corrosion inside that has probably rendered your watch useless.

Useless? You mean the watch that Roger Moore wore in his debut as James Bond in "Live and Let Die" can be disabled by the ravages of, ahem, time? I took the watch back from the repairman and told him rather snootily that I was sure I'd find the right batteries somewhere in the pipes of the Internets.

Indeed, I found a kit from the Small Battery Company in the U.K. that would let me use Energizer 357 batteries in place of the old Eveready 355s my dad's watch came with back when he bought in 1972. I was five years old then, and I clearly recall the sense of amazement I felt when he brought that watch home and flashed up the time in tiny glowing red lights. Pulsar was established as a brand by the venerable Hamilton Watch Company in 1972 ostensibly to market the first digital watch ever sold to the general public. It would be 35 years before I could call my dad on the phone and tell him that the LEDs were made of aluminum gallium arsenide and make a gallant effort to explain to him the wonders of compound semiconductor LED technology, which was why he paid more than $500 for it (the 18-kt gold version sold for $2100) lo those many years ago.

Unfortunately, the Small Battery Company only ships its precious wares to EU countries, so the kit--which is basically just some strips of rubber that help position the smaller 357 battery to fit the 355 slot in the watch--was out of my reach. I'd resigned myself, not unhappily, to the prospect of shelling out for one of those crazy new Japanese LED watches that display time in binary code when I somehow found my way to Retroleds, the site of a watch repairman and vintage LED watch merchant by the name of Ed Cantarella, who also happens to run LEDwatches.net. He assured me he could fix whatever needed fixing for a reasonable price. So I shipped the watch off to him a couple of weeks ago and within a day of his having received it, I got an email with the subject line "Say 'Hello'" as in Hello, World. Ed had my watch working on his bench. Somewhere in Michigan, an electrical engineer (once I saw the "Hello" subject line, I suspected Ed was an EE and he confirmed this), had brought a piece of my childhood back to life.

After a painless Paypal transaction, I received the watch today. It worked well enough, but the time was off by an hour. How, I wondered, do I change the time on this thing? After fruitlessly pressing the two indentations on the back of the watch where it reads "MIN" and "HR," I started fiddling with the band, hoping to unlock some secret 007 mechanism.

And I did. Inside the clasp is a small compartment that houses a "U"-shaped magnet. Touch the magnet to the MIN and HR indentations and, voila, the time changes. What better way to while away a lunch hour than unlocking the secrets to vintage electrotechnology and in the process opening a window on the wonder of childhood. Merry Christmas, Ed Cantarella, and thanks for the memories.

Watch%20back.jpg

Norad Santa-tracker meets Google Earth

image_about_santa.jpgNoradâ''the North American Aerospace Defense Commandâ''has been tracking Santa since 1955, when a Sears advertisement offering a talk-to-Santa hotline accidentally gave a the number of the Continental Air Defense Command, Noradâ''s predecessor. Today, the Norad web site explains, Norad follows Santaâ''s journey around the world using radar, infrared sensors on satellites that zero in on Rudolphâ''s nose, special â''Santa-Cams,â'' and fighter pilots in F-15 and F-16 jets. Norad used to make this information available via phone, now itâ''s on the web. Norad tracks Santa in six languages, German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese.

Itâ''s a great tool, Iâ''ve used it for the past few years; pointing out Santaâ''s imminent approach helps encourage excited children to get to bed early, so they can make sure theyâ''re asleep before Santa starts getting close. In previous years, the Santa tracker looked much like the live route maps on international airline flights, a map of the world overlaid with a simple path and icons.

This year, however, Norad Santa-tracker has been integrated with Google Earth, so it will likely be a lot flashier. I had yet to download Google Earth (I hadnâ''t realized the Mac version was available), but took Noradâ''s advice and did so today, so Iâ''ll be ready to track Santa on Christmas Eve. Thereâ''s also a widget to add to an iGoogle page.

Iâ''d love to tell you what I think of the latest version of Santa-tracker, but this is one application you canâ''t test ahead of time; Norad doesnâ''t start sleigh-hunting until 2 a.m. Mountain Time on Christmas Eve.

Norad does let you send a letter to Santa while youâ''re waiting. Santa replied to my email quickly, and confirmed that Iâ''m on the â''Niceâ'' list. He also said that fog is predicted for Christmas Eve, so Rudolph would likely be flying and that he just got a new sleigh with all the latest upgrades. Santa sounds like a classic early adopter.

Mars Satellite Spies What May Be Active Glacier

In a controversial conclusion, a scientist working for the European Space Agency (ESA) says that a formation on the surface of Mars is a relatively recent glacier.

The BBC Online features a report today stating that new images from the Mars Express spacecraft suggest the existence of a large active glacier near the Martian equator. Still unconfirmed, the prospective glacier may be a significant source of water on the surface of the arid Red Planet.

"If it was an image of Earth, I would say 'glacier' right away," Gerhard Neukum, chief scientist on the spacecraft's High Resolution Stereo Camera, told BBC News.

While glacial activity on the Martian surface has been spotted before, it has been regarded as the residue of ancient geophysical processes, occurring millions of years in the past. On Mars, scientists generally believe, surface ice cannot last for long before being sublimated into vapor in the thin atmosphere. Thus, some think that recent glaciers are the result of ice pushed up from beneath the surface of the planet. Neukum, who works at the Free University of Berlin, is one of these.

In the case of the prospective "young" glacier, he estimates that water moved up from underground in the last 10 000 to 100 000 years.

"We have not yet been able to see the spectral signature of water. But we will fly over it in the coming months and take measurements. On the glacial ridges we can see white tips, which can only be freshly exposed ice," Neukum told the BBC. "That means it is an active glacier now. This is unique, and there are probably more."

He speculated that the new discovery could be a breakthrough in the hunt for possible life on Mars. The potential glacier, which rests in the planet's Deuteronilus Mensae region, would very likely be a target for future exploration by robotic rovers if proven out. Should microbes exist deep underground on Mars, kept alive by liquid water, they may be able to reach the surface within the ice flow of such recent glaciers.

If so, these images from the Mars Explorer will have provided an invaluable clue as to where to seek them. That would be a fitting holiday present for the administrators of the European space program. The 25th of December will mark the four-year anniversary of their spacecraft's arrival at Earth's closest neighbor.

Microsoft doesn't have the only Santa chat-bot

Microsoft may have had problems with their chatty Santa getting into x-rated conversations and have had to cut off his Internet access, but there are plenty of other Santa chat-bots online, for kids who would rather IM Santa their wish lists rather than wait in that endless line at the mall.

I tested three. Santabot has nice wintry graphics and a simple interface. But Santabotâ''s kept asking me questions about music; I had a hard time getting him to get to the issue at hand, that is, what I want for Christmas. Finally, we got there. I asked for an iPod, Santabot gave me a hard time. â''Why would you want an iPod?â'' â''But why do you want one?â'' And then he redirected the conversation back to talking about what kinds of music I like. You'd think, with such an interest in music, that Santabot would know why I wanted an iPod. But I was willing to move on, and tried asking for a bicycle. Santabot thought it was odd that I wanted only one bicycle; he suggested they might be cheaper in quantity. Iâ''m not sending my kids to this Santa.

Next, I visited the Santabot offered by the Artificial Intelligence Foundation. This Santa got right to the point, that is, what did I want for Christmas? I asked for an iPod, and he said heâ''d add it to my list, which is what Santa is supposed to say. He also remembered me from visit to visit; when I went back later to show him to my kids and asked for something else, he pointed out that my list was getting a bit long. However, this site had an animated Santa head and text-to-speech conversion, both were horrid, the AI Foundation should have stuck to plain text chat.

The Santabot at CD Newswire is a bit of a smart alec. I asked for an iPod, Santa said â''Oh my goodness!â'' I tried for a bicycle, and this Santa replied, â''As if!â'' And then he wanted to know if I left the cookies for him or the cockroaches. When I mentioned that I always leave him a glass of brandy along with the cookies, he asked if Iâ''ve ever considered a career as an elf.

Iâ''m thinking that line at the mall suddenly doesnâ''t look so long.

Future of Nanoelectronics: 20-Hour Battery Life for your Laptop

3354_01.jpg

When people think of nanotechnology in electronics they like to imagine molecular electronics, but it may be the mundane that pushes nanotechnology further into the electronics industry.

Imagine a laptop battery that could last 20 hours rather than 2. That is what you call a unique selling point, and surely something that has long been sought by computer manufacturers.

Some of you might remember NEC letting it be known (back in 2001, then in 2003, and again in 2004--the picture above gives you an indication of how long ago this was) that they had a fuel-cell battery enabled by nanotechnology that would last for 40 hours, and it would hit the market by 2004. It was never released to the market, and is hardly mentioned now except for those who question, â''Whatever happened toâ'¿?â''

The latest entry into the fray of improving upon Li-Ion battery technology comes from Yi Cui, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford.

The beauty of this solution isâ'¿well, itâ''s not a fuel cell with all its incumbent limitations. Instead it simply replaces the lithium in the anode with silicon nanowiresâ'¿thatâ''s very simply.

Supposedly, current manufacturing techniques can easily accommodate this solution. That said, it is still just research, although Cui has announced the launching of a start-up to commercialize the technology.

Expect a lot more in the field of battery technology. Pretty safe bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Remembering PC Power Activist Glenn DeWeese

from the desk of Senior Editor Jean Kumagai:

Glenn DeWeese is dead. And the world is the worse for it.

I never met the man, never even knew he existed until I stumbled

across a story just now in The Oklahoman. But

to judge by his accomplishments, he was a man of both action and

compassion.

For the last four years, up until his sudden and untimely death this

weekend, DeWeese had led a nonprofit group in Tulsa called PC

Power, which refurbishes recent-model personal computers and

distributes them, free, to kids at risk.

According to the story, DeWeese, a retired police officer, had been

inspired to found PC Power while helping his grandson with a homework

assignment that involved an Internet search:

"Long after the simple search was finished, and the homework was

done, the assignment continued to bother DeWeese. He had a computer

and knew enough about computers to help his grandson. But what about

those families who couldn't afford a family computer? How did those

children do their homework assignment?"

Rather than just feel bad and then move on with his life, DeWeese

decided to start rebuilding computers, which were then distributed at

Christmas time with the help of the Tulsa Police Department.

According to the story, PC Power has announced that despite DeWeese's

absence, this year's distribution of 85 computers--the fifth such

drive--will go forward and the group's efforts will continue.

So did DeWeese really help those families in need? In the online

comments, a reader notes, rather dismissively, that "A PC without an

Internet connection is like trying to enter a library that has locked

its doors for the night." But another commenter responds: "maybe you

could turn on internet for a dozen of his kids...it is a step in the

right direction..."

That's the spirit. DeWeese did the hard thing: he backed up his good

intentions with good deeds. And in doing so, he showed us a way of

living.

Little-Known Fact #2876: Electrons look like Seth Rogen

Apparently mobilized by the success of Knocked Up, Phiar Corporation has released a promotional video that anthropomorphizes electrons as sweet-natured slackers on a "CMOS budget."

Replete with '70s font treatments and purposefully low production values, "A Day in the Life of an Electron" explains why metal-insulator-insulator-metal diodes are better for electron mobility than semiconductors.

An alternate explanation of Phiar's use of quantum tunneling can be found in October's issue of Spectrum Online.

Recent Developments Give New Life to Molecular Nanotechnology

Desk-Top-Factory-large.jpg

Four recent announcements have reignited some proponents of molecular nanotechnology, most notably the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), to examine scenarios of what will happen to the world when desktop nanofactories are available in 15 years, which is â''arguably optimisticâ'', according to CRN.

The four recent developments are:

â'¢ The release by US National Research Council last year calling for more funding or experimental research in molecular manufacturing

â'¢ A request for proposals last July by DARPA for developing tip-based nanofabrication

â'¢ The UK Government in October providing grants into developing nanomachines that can build materials molecule by molecule

â'¢ The release last week of the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems , which was previewed last week on this blog

Proposed funding for further research into the potential of molecular nanotechnology is overdue and hopefully will lead to some productive research in this field.

Whether it is necessary to start working out the possible economic and societal scenarios of a technological outcome for which little hard research has been conducted, is a question best left to those who decide to devote their time to such an enterprise.

But the Technology Roadmap is now available and it is a serious document, albeit mostly couched in the subjunctive mood (â''couldâ'' and â''wouldâ'' are used often in this document).

When reading a roadmap, you want to know where you are, where you want to be, and how youâ''re going to get there. The latter in cases such as these takes the form of a research agenda. This Roadmap delivers such a plan, but doesnâ''t provide much in terms of what the likely obstacles will be along the way (in fact, the word â''obstacleâ'' is used only once throughout the entire document). Surely, there is at least one mountain or body of water that must be overcome and traversed.

Nonetheless the Roadmap rightly calls for a coordination of all efforts (knowledge, instrumentation, modeling, techniques, and components) in order to lead to functional engineering systems, and a clear research agenda. However, it does offer some areas that will need to be addressed:

â'¢ Components and Devices

â'¢ Systems and Frameworks

â'¢ Fabrication and Synthesis Methods

â'¢ Modeling, Design, and Characterization

Hopefully, the combination of announced funding and a research agenda will remove much of the speculation and acrimony that seems to have surrounded molecular nanotechnology and just bring it to where it should have been all along: a field of scientific endeavor.

Environmentalists turn spotlight on nanotechnology

nano01.jpgIn September, IEEE Spectrum published an article by Barbara Karn and H. Scott Matthews calling for more research into the environmental and health effects of nanotechnologies. They urged the technology industry, for once, to thoroughly investigate the potential downside of a technology before it becomes pervasive.

Since then, other organizations have added their voices to this call for caution.

This month, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition announced that it will soon release a report, â''Potential Community Impacts of Nanotechnology, that draws parallels between the first Silicon Valley electronics boom, that left a legacy of medical problems, Superfund sites, and contaminated groundwater, and the current nanotechnology boom, with materials being put into use without an understanding of their potential risks. The organization promised to focus its efforts in 2008 on the potential risks of nanotechnology; that likely means putting pressure on companies to improve testing before products are brought to market.

Also this month, in Europe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 30 countries that cooperate on economic, social, and environmental issues, announced that its member countries will pool funding to test nanomaterials already in use or about to come onto the market and will consider whether the organizations traditional test guidelines, used for other materials, are suitable for assessing nanomaterials or if new testing need to be developed.

Meanwhile, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, the list of products on the market that include nanomaterials, a group that included just over 500 products back in September, has grown to 580, from A (like Acnel Lotion, which contains a nanoform of CoEnzyme Q10) to Z (the Z-ion Zirconia hair dryer, which contains nanoparticles of zirconium).

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Load More