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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

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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).

Electronics for octogenarians (or, "Buying a Christmas present for my mother")

51MaoUS4IsL._SS260_.jpgThere are early adopters. And there are late adopters. And there are those who really really donâ''t want to adopt but whose adult children want them to.

My 80-something mother falls into that last category. Iâ''ve tried to get her to use the Internet; she canâ''t get past the mouse/cursor disjunct, that is, the fact that the mouse, or trackball, or touchpad or whatever is on the table, the cursor is on the screen. Her brain just wonâ''t rewire to accept that. Sheâ''s a 100-plus words a minute typist on an old electric typewriter, and thatâ''s technology enough for her.

But thatâ''s not technology enough for me. So I was excited a year or so ago when a company called Presto introduced its email service and the HP Printing Mailbox, which would let an Internet user (me) send email to someone who does not have Internet

service (my mother), and it would just print out automatically. It would even send me an email to let me know when the printer was low on ink. The Printing Mailbox itself looked like a large electric typewriter; this, I thought, was a good thing.

I signed up and was accepted for the companyâ''s Beta trial; free mailbox, service, and supplies for six months or a year or something like that. I told my mother about the system, and said that all she needed to do was to plug it into the wall and into her phone line, and put in paper; the ink cartridge was already installed. I was a little nervous, it would have been better if I could have been at her house to set it up, but sheâ''s across the country for me, which is why I need email.

The printing mailbox arrived. She opened the box, and found a daunting instruction manual. She called the customer service number, and the representative started babbling about how she needed to log on to the Internet and set up her mailbox and indicate who she would accept mail from and select security codes and on and on. She slammed the box shut and sent it back to the manufacturer. I gave the manufacturer lots of feedback about how customer service should ask whether the person on the phone was going to be the email sender or the recipient before freaking that person out. But the experiment was over for me.

Iâ''ve hesitated to try to get my mother to adopt any new electronics devices since. The last one I got into her house was a VCR. I hooked it up; she loved it, itâ''s pretty much worn out now. But Iâ''ve been dying to get her a DVD player; Iâ''d like to send her videos of the kids in the DVD format, much easier for me than making a video tape these days, and there are occasional movies I see that I think sheâ''d enjoy and would like to share with her.

So I bought her a portable DVD player for Christmas this year. She wonâ''t be pleased; this falls into the category of a gift I wanted to give, not one she wants to get. (I also bought her some nice Japanese green tea, she will like that. And no, Iâ''m not giving a secret away, I know sheâ''s not reading this blog.) I decided on a portable because she wonâ''t have to hook it up to her TV (if I were going to be there personally this Christmas, I might have gotten a regular player and hooked it up for her). I settled on a model from NextPlay, I think a made-for-Target brand, perhaps somehow connected to RCA, considering little Nipper on the photo above. And it only has a wide-screen mode, not a 3:4 aspect ratio, so all my home movies will be weirdly stretched. According to the reviews, it wonâ''t last; I may have to replace it in six months. But it has a clear user interface, with three large buttons; one for play (green), one for pause (yellow), and one for stop (red); it canâ''t get much simpler. (Well, maybe a little simpler, unlike the buttons, the power switch is a little hard to find.)

Having learned my lesson from the Printing Mailbox experience, I highjacked the instruction manual and replaced it with my own instructions. These start out by saying to ignore just about everything in the box, including the cigarette lighter power cord, the two remotes, the battery pack, the earphones, and the TV cables, and instead just find the power cord, which Iâ''ve labeled, and the main unit. Then the instructions walk through putting a disc in, ignoring the menus that appear, and simply pressing play. Iâ''ve included a copy of â''Sickoâ'', a movie I know sheâ''s dying to see, and hope that with these basic instructions itâ''ll be loaded and running before she gets frustrated.

That brings me to the point of this post. Why canâ''t every gizmo include one sheet of instructions for the person who just wants to turn the thing on and use it for its most basic function? In large print. For the late adopter. Why did I have to write this out myself, and figure out some things that are not intuitive? (That really stopping, for example, requires that you push the red â''stopâ'' button twice, that one push of stop is only an extended "pause.â'')

Iâ''ll let you know if this effort is a success, or if, once again, my favorite late adopter decides not to adopt.

Nanotechnology Could End Drunk Driving

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A blue-ribbon panel in the US has been considering the use of nanosensor-enabled interlock devices installed in the steering wheels of automobiles that would detect the blood/alcohol level of the driver and turn off the ignition if the driver was over the legal alcohol limit.

This scenario seems to be taken seriously in Canada as evidenced by this article.

Interlock devices are not new. But these devices represent the old-generation technology (see photo above) where a driver has to blow in a tubeâ''seemingly a far more voluntary procedure.

Still the ratio of these installed interlock devices to drunk driving convictions in Canada at least is pretty poor, with 11,000 interlocks in cars in Canada today but 90,000 drunk driving convictions a year.

Putting aside all the privacy issues that some will argue against such a technology, it is not clear how close such a nano-enabled interlock device is to being realized.

Of course, if governments start to pass legislation that this technology needs to be installed in cars by a certain date, you can be sure that industry will in a rush to commercialize something.

It should all become interesting if it does come to pass as civil libertarians will be in a pitch battle with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Yale's Engineers Without Borders Help in Cameroon

'Tis the season for charity. With that in mind, we should spend some time this month in our pages recognizing the charitable deeds of our readers.

One that came across our transom last week is a report from the Yale Herald on a project undertaken earlier this year by the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at Yale University.

In August, a group of engineering students from the college traveled to the African nation of Cameroon to work on a clean water system for a town of about 1000 residents.

Last year, representatives from the town of Kikoo requested the assistance of Engineers Without Borders USA to build a drinking water aqueduct for their community. The Yale chapter, in New Haven, Conn., accepted the invitation. During their spring semester, the group studied the problem, analyzing the geography and the physical requirements. Meanwhile, they set about trying to raise the funds needed to travel to Kikoo and build the project, budgeted by them to cost US $40 000. According to the college newspaper, this was the biggest obstacle for the Yale team.

University students typically do not have a lot of money to spend on extracurricular activities. So the Yale EWB members, about 15 in all, embarked on a campaign of selling greeting cards and cookies during last year's holiday season. Although this netted them only a couple thousand dollars toward their goal, it attracted the attention of alumni, who began to offer contributions. Fellowship funding from the university soon followed.

With enough money to begin the project, a team of five undergrads and four mentors made the long trip to Kikoo in August and began working. They started by building a water storage tank from scratch. Without the luxury of calling in a cement truck to pour the base for the tank, the students and townspeople spent days digging with shovels and chipping gravel with picks. Then they lined the base by hand with rocks. After two and a half weeks of manual labor, the Yalies and their local counterparts had constructed most of the water tank and laid the foundations for a few standpipes.

In early November, the Yale team received word from Kikoo that the people of the town had finished the first part of the project and that potable water was flowing from several faucets in the community for the first time.

At present, the project is only able to serve about two thirds of the residents of Kikoo. The initial funding raised proved insufficient to purchase all the materials needed to finish the job as originally planned. So, for the EWB group at Yale, it's back to raising more money during the current holiday season -- and that means more cards and cookies. They plan to return to Kikoo in the upcoming year to finish what they started.

If you're in the New Haven area in the next couple of weeks and you see a student selling holiday cookies, you might want to buy a few. They just might help a town 5000 miles away enjoy a better quality of life.

Consider it the charitable thing to do.

Reactor Shutdown Causes Delays In Medical Tests

A troubled Canadian nuclear reactor is causing delays in molecular imaging for thousands of patients who rely on the scans to guide life-saving diagnoses and therapies. Ontario's 50-year-old Chalk River reactor is the source of about half of North America's supply of molybdenum-99, a key component in nuclear medicine for patients with cancer, heart disease, and bone fractures.

The Toronto Star reports that the reactor was shut down for four days in mid-November for a routine monthly inspection, when reactor staff noticed that an emergency power supply was not connectedâ''a task that was supposed to have been completed two years ago.

According to the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, about 400 000 patients in the United States and 30 000 patients in Canada receive such tests each week. â''Nuclear medicine services are now being rationed across Canada,â'' says the society. The Canadian Broadcast Corp. quotes a nuclear medicine specialist in Halifax, Novia Scotia, who says he has been canceling 100 tests a week.

The repairs are expected to extend into January 2008, and the Star reports that the reactorâ''s owner, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, does not have all the parts necessary to perform the emergency upgrades. The fixes involve connecting pumps that circulate heavy water to a back-up power supply. In the event of a major earthquake, this measure would prevent the reactor from overheatingâ''an important step in safeguarding the facility from a core meltdown.

Radioactive isotopes have three main uses in medicine, the most common of which is diagnostic imaging. This branch of medicine uses radioactive tracers that emit gamma rays within the body, which are detected by a system and used to build up an image of, for example, an organ. A common source of such a tracer is molybdenum-99, a product of uranium fission. It has a half-life of 66 hours, which means that it cannot be stockpiled and must be shipped daily to hospitals across the continent. Molybdenum-99 decays into the isotope technetium-99, which is the end product that is used as an imaging agent in 80 percent of all nuclear medicine. It has a half-life of 6 hours.

Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks

An ongoing problem with fuel sensors has forced NASA to postpone the latest mission of the space shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS). Yesterday, the malfunction of two gauges that measure liquid hydrogen in the external fuel tank of the shuttle prompted managers in the space agency to halt an already postponed launch attempt and reschedule it for 2 January at the earliest. The problem is in the four engine cut-off (ECO) sensors, which have variously given off false readings during fueling procedures in preparation for the latest mission of the Atlantis orbiter, designated STS-122.

The faulty ECO gauges have been a source of trouble for the shuttle launch team at Cape Canaveral for quite a while. In the past, NASA has tried to work around them, launching orbiters into space even when one or two of them have acted strangely. Not this time, though. The space agency said on its shuttle Web site that this time it had had enough and was temporarily shutting down the current mission until engineers could inspect and fix the mysterious problem once and for all.

The ECO system is designed to warn flight controllers that fuel is running unexpectedly low and trigger an automatic cut off of the main engines, preventing any damage on ascent.

"We're determined to get to the bottom of this," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team. He added that launching on the rescheduled date would depend on the work of the engineers to fix the ECO problem.

"We would rather have launched today, obviously," Cain said Sunday. "This was going to be, in the very least, a good tanking test for us, and that's what it's turned out to be."

The crew of STS-122 flew back to Houston on Sunday, but they expressed their gratitude to the launch crew for their efforts before leaving, according to the space agency.

"We want to thank everyone who worked so hard to get us into space this launch window," the astronauts said in a statement. "We had support teams working around the clock at KSC, JSC, and numerous sites in Europe. We were ready to fly but understand that these types of technical challenges are part of the space program. We hope everyone gets some well-deserved rest, and we will be back to try again when the vehicle is ready to fly."

The main objective of the 11-day mission of Atlantis will be to install and activate the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory, which will provide scientists around the world with the ability to conduct a variety of life, physical, and materials science experiments in weightlessness.

First, though, they need to shake a few bugs out.

EVS-23: Rumors & comments & questions, oh my! (2 of 2)

New York Cityâ''And hereâ''s the second one, my last post from the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23) held Sunday through Wednesday (Dec 2-5) in Anaheim, California.

This is the final list of factoids, comments, questions, suppositions, and a bit of opinion (I posted the first one from Anaheim on Wednesday). Like the first, this was gathered from three intensive days of discussions with engineers, technologists, researchers, and executives. They were from automakers, battery companies, research institutions, regulatory bodies and more.

Consider this food for thought on the state of electric vehicles today:

- V2G? V2H? Simple plugs? A long, long way to go yet. Reader Glenn Skutt asked if there was any discussion of Vehicle-to-Grid communication and its long-term implications, and there was tons. But right now, the automakers are just starting to grapple with the issuesâ''itâ''s not yet a natural thing for auto engineers to consider interfacing their product to anything beyond digital fault analyzers. Stay tuned on this one (and watch Spectrum for more).

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- My favorite moment (photo): In a presentation by Peter Nortman, president of EnergyCS, describing its results with a fleet of 15 Priuses converted to plug-in hybrids, a squadron of grey-suited Asian engineers raised their digital cameras in unison, like a ballet of swans, to snap pictures of every slide he projected. Cheaper than $150 for the proceedings on CD-ROM, I guess.

- As well as plug-ins, itâ''s all about the weightâ''or should be. Fordâ''s Susan Cischke announced little beyond the directions CEO Alan Mulally had already laid out earlier at the LA Auto Show. But she reiterated the companyâ''s commitment to â''stabilize the weight and sizeâ'' of its vehicles, and start reducing the weight of models launching after 2012. Given Mulallyâ''s tenure in the aircraft industry, where weight is anathema, this sounds promising. Too bad Ford is selling Jaguar, its only brand that has an actual aluminum-framed car in production â'¿.

- Assuming the Chevrolet Volt launches as promised in 2010 or 2011, how will GM hang onto an early-mover advantage in batteries? Itâ''s well known that Panasonic gives Toyota its newest and best products well before they reach other customers; the two companies have a decades-long relationship. Can US vendors do the same? A high-ranked executive smiled wolfishly when asked how GM would prevent battery vendors (A123, say) from selling cells to other automakers. His answer? They can sell power batteries (for hybrids) all day long, but GM gets a lock on energy batteries (for long-range electric-drive vehicles). Given the market, I bet those were long, arduous negotiations.

And thatâ''s all she wrote â'¿but watch Spectrum Online for a full writeup of EVS-23, including this material and many pictures, just like the one I did on the LA Auto Show. Thanks for reading.

Do High Tech Ski Accessories Promote Head Injury?

That's what I've been asking myself as I've been looking at ski gadgets this week. On Monday, the medical journal Injury Prevention (part of the British Medical Journal family), published a study that attributes more head injuries from skiing and snowboarding to the increasingly ridiculous/miraculous/stupid tricks that athletes are trying to pull off.

Alpine skiing and snowboarding are sports that involve high velocity and, recently, an increased propensity for participants to jump and perform acrobatic maneuvers, factors that may result in injury. Increased participation in jumping and acrobatics has led to a large number of brain and spinal cord injuries...

Apparently, while fewer skiers are getting injured, more people are hurting their heads and necks.

Let's face it, crazy tricks with huge amounts of risk have always been a part of winter sports (although skiing in subway escalators seems to be a more recent development). The difference, now, is that better technologies and equipment seem to not only make big tricks possible, but somehow inevitable. For example, look at The Hangtimer. For $99, this little gadget is packed with little accelerometers that automatically start and stop a timer, settling once and for all whose 360 mute-grab lasted longest.

That's not the only gadget out there promoting the new go-big or go-home attitude. Check out O'Neill's new H4 Campack. It has a built-in, helmet-mounted video camera connected to a giant red "record" button on the shoulder strap. That should make it easy for would-be Warren Millers to shoot YouTube ski videos without even removing their mittens. (Check out O'Neill's promotional video to see some of the kinds of skiing and riding that the Injury Prevention folks worry about.)

from talk2myshirt

"But the backpack uses a helmet mounted cam," you might protest, "surely helmet use helps keep skiers and snowboarders safe." In general, that's true—according to the study, "helmets are associated with a 22â''60% decreased rate of head injury." However, I'm not so sure all helmets are focused on safety first. The Giro bluetooth helmet, for example, adds another level of distraction to your skiing/boarding. Imagine the extra foolhardy adrenaline you get when "Eye of the Tiger" blasts as you drop in the half-pipe.

In the medical journal report, they note that "Advances in skiing/snowboarding equipment and techniques have produced increased velocities and jumping heights. Collisions occur with other participants on the slopes and with inanimate objects, such as trees, rocks, and chairlift poles, causing injury."From the recent ski videos I've watched with my slopes-obsessed, 15-year-old brother, that's an understatement. Guys are dropping from the sky onto hand-rails and ice-covered stairs.

While the report tentatively proposes that " the increase [in head injuries] may be linked with the proliferation of snowparks, and a possible increase in the risk of injuries associated with snowpark use where terrain is modified to accommodate acrobatic maneuvers," the conclusion seems obvious to me.

It's interesting to note that helmets work better at slower speeds, and in general, terrain park skiers and riders go slower than racers (especially those with self-waxing skis). So it's probably even more important to strap one on.

The good news is that the risk of injury from skiing is still relatively low: for every thousand skiers on the slopes on any given day, there are two or three injuries. That means injuries today less than half as likely as they were in the 1970s, and much of the decrease is attributed to better engineered equipment. (Plus, today we have ski jackets with warning lights on them). I'll still be hitting the slopes hard this winter, but I think I'll leave the gadgets at home. And wear my helmet. And maybe I'll just stick to the moguls and trees where I'm unlikely to do this (NOTE: not for the weak of stomach).

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