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UN: Foreign direct investment largest since 2000

According to the United Nations' 2007 World Investment Report, published on 16 October, global foreign investment inflows amounted to US $1,306 billion in 2006, which is a 38 percent increase over 2005 and comes close to the record-setting $1,411 billion of 2000.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development ranked the worldâ''s top 100 non-financial TNCs by foreign assets.

Of the top 100 TNCs, 58 belonged to six industries: motor vehicles (11), petroleum (10), electrical and electronic equipment (10), pharmaceuticals (9), telecommunications (9), and electricity, gas and water services (9).

I've pulled out only that small sliver of TNCs that are in the electrical and electronic equipment industry. You can find the full table at the UNCTAD site (be warned: itâ''s a PDF, and youâ''ll find the full table on page 229).

RankingCorporationHome economyForeign affiliates
1General ElectricUnited States1184
18Siemens AGGermany877
30IBMUnited States380
39Sony CorporationJapan233
41Hewlett PackardUnited States249
44 Philips ElectronicsNetherlands337
66Hitachi LimitedJapan356
85 Matsushita Electric Industrial CompanyJapan288
87 SamsungRepublic of Korea76
92 LG Republic of Korea42

With the possible exception of Samsung, these are all huge conglomerates, and some are pretty much cradle-to-grave companies for their products. Some of the biggest names in chipsâ''like Intel, Infineon, AMD and Micronâ''who are not conglomerates are notably absent from the list.

The report estimates that the sales, value added and exports of the worldâ''s approximately 78,000 transnational corporations (TNCs) accounted for 10 percent of world GDP and one-third of world exports.

Californiaâ¿¿s firefighters get a little help from a friend

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Yesterday NASAâ''s Ikhana remotely piloted aircraft took to the skies to help firefighters struggling to contain the many fires burning in southern California. The plane carried a scanning system built by NASAâ''s Ames Research Center, the Autonomous Modular Sensor-Wildfire, which records images in multiple wavelengths, and therefore is not blinded by smoke.

The hardware hangs in a 180-kg pod under the aircraft, as visible in the photo below, taken yesterday with smoke from the Lake Arrowhead fire in the background. 194165main_ED07-0243-36.jpgNASA has been conducting demonstration flights of the technology throughout this fire season; it got involved yesterday at the request of the California Governorâ''s office. Eventually, NASA hopes, the sensing system will be a regular part of a firefighters arsenal.

But for the hordes of firefighters attacking the southern California fires, the future is now. The images gathered aboard Ikhana during its ten hours aloft yesterday were processed on board and sent via satellite to a server at NASA Ames. NASA team members assigned to fire command camps throughout the affected area, helped firefighters access the image data through special web sites, for example, in the top photo of the Harris Fire in San Diego County, hot spots along the ridgeline are clearly visible.

Nanotechnology and the iPodâ¿¿Oh my!

First there was the rash of news articles touting the recent Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) for making possible your iPod (here, here, here, here, and here), and then the attribution of its discovery to the â''first application of nanotechnology", to create some deal of confusion.

Since a majority of the articles referenced above come from the UK press, it is perhaps only fitting that a UK-produced YouTube video try to explain it all.

Using a format familiar to anyone who watches The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, an interviewer goes out into the street to ask how their iPod works. Remarkably unlike the US version, where Jay Leno asks questions like "Who is the Vice President of the US?" and gets too many "I don't knows" and wild guesses, in this UK version the respondents are not too far off the mark most of the time.

And the video contains some enlightenment from Prof. Richard Jones, known widely for his Soft Machines Blog.

But while GMR may have made the iPod possible, others in the blog community will have none of the bit about GMR being due to nanotechnology. Apparently, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences just don't get it. It is a worthy, albeit "complicated", debate.

Chinese Probe on Way to the Moon

Aiming to join the lunar exploration club, China today successfully launched a probe to conduct research from an orbit around the moon. If all goes as planned, the satellite, named Chang'e 1, will reach our nearest celestial neighbor in 13 days for a yearlong mission mapping the lunar surface and spectroscoping its composition.

The Chinese project comes on the heels of a similar lunar mission last month by the Japanese space agency. It also precedes another lunar attempt by the Indian government scheduled for lift-off in the spring of next year. Analysts believe the trio of projects signals a round of scientific muscle flexing among the Asian giants aimed at winning prestige among their neighbors as technological heavyweights.

"The launch of China's first moon probe is successful," said Xu Fuxiang, a professor at the China Institute of Space Technology. "We have passed through the most difficult time. It should be heading smoothly toward the moon."

After entering lunar orbit the 5070-pound Chang'e 1 will use its stereo cameras to begin transmitting images back to earth in a few week's time.

China has long been a participant in space exploration, launching its first satellite into orbit over thirty years ago. Recently, its space program has grown in scale as its economy has flourished. In 2003, China became only the world's third country, after the United States and Russia, to put its own people into space. The Chang'e 1 is just the first effort in a planned 10-year agenda to explore the moon, culminating in attempts to land robotic rovers on its surface and return them home.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said recently that he thought the Chinese will get to the moon and back before the U.S. can meet its own 2020 deadline for a return visit by its own astronauts.

For more on today's launch and the impact of the Chinese lunar program, please see these excellent analyses:

Also see our Tech Talk posting from last week "Should China Become a Space Station Participant?".

The engineering approach to facing cancer

prof03.jpgSteve Kirschâ''electrical engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and, oh yeah, inventor of the optical mouseâ''has a rare and officially incurable form of cancer. Given a typical prognosis, heâ''s got about five years to live.

Or thereâ''s another way to look at it. Kirsch says on his web site, â''I have enough time to change the outcome.â''

Kirsch has a blood cancer called Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia; it is diagnosed in about 1500 Americans annually.

I met Kirsch seven years ago in the offices of Propel, a company he had founded to develop easy to use e-commerce tools, a concept he described at the time as â''Amazon in a Boxâ''. He previously founded Mouse Systems (sold to Kye System Corp., Frame Technology (sold to Adobe), and Infoseek (sold to Disney). His office at Propel overlooked an amusement park; the thrill rides below were an apt metaphor for his fast-paced career.

Since that 2000 interview, Kirsch started another company, Abaca, aimed at beefing up email security, blocking phishing attempts and viruses as well as spam. He remains as CEO as Propel, last month the company launched a product at Demofall designed to help individuals manage the way their computers are using bandwidth. He became a force in Silicon Valley philanthropy, putting $75 million into a foundation and stepping up with a $1 million donation when Silicon Valleyâ''s United Way campaign fell short one year. He also became a major contributor to the Democratic Party.

Kirsch has never been afraid to take on a challenge. And now, facing the biggest challenge of his life, heâ''s doing what served him so well in the pastâ''heâ''s taking the engineering approach. Heâ''s reading the peer reviewed articles on the subject. Heâ''s taking every test his doctors suggest, studying the results, and posting them on his web site so others can look at them as well. Heâ''s analyzing risk factors and survivability data. Heâ''s investing heavily into R&D; the foundation he started, the Steve and Michele Kirsch Foundation, announced this month that it will redirect most of its funds to efforts addressing this rare cancer.

â''Realistically,â'' he writes on his web site, â''whatever I do to find a cure will likely be too late to save my own life.â''

â''But that doesnâ''t mean I shouldnâ''t try. I remember as a kid learning the old saying that â''nobody ever won a chess game by resigning.â'' Who knows. Maybe I will get lucky.â''

He continues: â''I believe that people make their own luck. I think my best chance of survival is to advance the science by using some novel approaches to raising massive amounts of money and then intelligently directing those funds into research that is likely to do the most good. It appears that [today] research is focused more on finding the best treatments rather than in understanding the underlying mechanisms that cause the disease. My strategic bet is that if we are to cure this disease, it wonâ''t happen by doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.â''

Analyzing problems, picking an unconventional approach, and then placing a big bet on the choice has proved a winning strategy for Kirsch in the past; I sure hope it works again. Good luck, Steve.

Nanotechnology and the Automobile

When people think about technologies, they often either think of computers or automobiles. So whenever nanotechnology gets discussed, it always becomes necessary to say how it will impact our automobiles.

The answers arenâ''t very exciting. I recall that the big application that was touted in those heady days after the NNI was launched in 2001 was the use by General Motors of nanoclay-TPO composites in exterior steps for vans resulting in a 7-8% weight saving, a smoother surface and enhanced scratch resistance.

Then you got the more detailed examinations that included nanocomposites in polycarbonate automotive glazing, or nanocomposites for high-barrier plastics for fuel tanks and fuel systems.

The list can go on like this, but you get the pointâ'¿I hope. What weâ''re talking about here is just incremental advances in composite materials. Not particularly exciting, and itâ''s not as if these nanomaterials were specifically engineered for these applications.

But the fascination with the automobile is a strong one, and it has almost become obligatory to mention the car whenever you utter the word â''nanotechnologyâ''.

Along these lines, in the latest issue of Nanotechnology Law & Business they provided a link to an article entitled â''Top Ten Ways Nanotechnology Will Impact Life in the Next Ten Yearsâ''. So, of course, I was intrigued, and sure enough the automobile was included.

What was interesting about how they approached it was not the mention of nanotechnology enabling low-emission automobiles, but using the example of Oxonica and its liquid-based catalyst that reduces emissions for diesel fuels, EnviroxTM.

Whatâ''s interesting about this example is that it has nearly ruined the company. In testing of the Envirox product in diesel engines in Turkey conducted by Petrol Ofisi, the Turkish national oil-and-gas company, the results were disappointing. Oxonica claimed at the time that further tests had to be run, but any way you cut it the future of the Turkish deal looks as though it is finished.

This is not to say nano-enabled fuel-borne catalysts wonâ''t reduce emissions in diesel fuels, but the Oxonica example seems to be a poor one.

But the need to equate nanotechnology to the automobile gets really weird in the hands of futurists. At the recent LA Autoshow designs were submitted for the car that will exist in 2057. Nanotechnology figured prominently with Mercedes-Benz offering up the â''Silver Flowâ'' that will utilize micro-metallic particles that can be rearranged via magnetic fields into any form you choose. Hmmhâ'¿not exactly lighter weight composites for steps on a mini-van.

Maker Faire Highlights: Life Size Mouse Trap

When I first visited the Maker Faire grounds, I was puzzled by the fenced off collection of brightly painted pieces of welding. By Saturday afternoon, I realized that that the metal sculptures were all part of a human-scale version of the board game Mouse Trap, where players collect and assemble pieces to form a rodenticide machine Rube Goldberg could be proud of.

Mark Perez, the builder of the life size model, says it took him ten years to build the contraption. A successful run concludes with dropping a 4000 pound safe. The crane alone, which hoists the safe, took more than two years to build by hand. It cost Perez $1.75 per mile to haul everything from San Francisco on a 53-foot semi-truck.

I can't fathom why someone would do all this, but seeing the thing actually work was pretty amazing, if only for its sheer whimsy. Watch it for yourself in the video below (which also includes a one-woman-band that is the most fitting accompaniment I could imagine for this spectacle).

Women Set to Take Charge of Space (Update)

Even under poor weather conditions, the Discovery orbiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral as scheduled at 11:48 (EDT) this morning. Its complex 14-day mission, known as STS-120, will include installing a 16-ton port module known as Harmony to the International Space Station (ISS). This space shuttle flight also represents something of a historical milestone, as the commanders of both Discovery and the ISS, the two human-operated spacecraft now in orbit, are women, a first in the annals of space flight.

(See our blog entry from yesterday.)

"It was one of the cleanest countdowns we've had since I've been launch director," NASA's Mike Leinbach said.

According to NASA, the seven-member crew of Discovery has a tight schedule that calls for placing the new module to the ISS, moving a tower of solar arrays already in space to a new location, and overseeing the station crew rotation that will see astronaut Dan Tani and station resident Clayton Anderson switch places.

"[There is] just a tremendous set of challenges in front of us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

It will take about 48 hours for Discovery to maneuver toward and dock with the ISS. The shuttle crew will then work with their three space station colleagues to perform five extravehicular activities over 10 days to accomplish the multiple assignments they have been tasked with.

Maker Faire Highlights: Mentos and Diet Coke

One of the big draws of the Maker Faire in Austin was the Diet Coke and Mentos demonstration. I learned a couple things about the process:

1) Apparently regular coke works almost as well, but is much stickier to clean up.

2) The soda has to be warm, so don't try it with a two-liter right out of the deli fridge.

Enjoy the video of the act below, including an explanation of the physics involved, and lots of kids getting soaked. Click on the Maker Faire tag to see other videos from the event.

Solar Car Race, Oddly, On Pause

DSCN1373.JPG

In the middle of the desert, in the middle of Australia, in the middle of a race--a pause. This year, the organizers of the World Solar Challenge--in which solar cars from around the world gather at the top end of the continent to race 3000 kilometers to Australia's southern coast--ordered all the solar cars to park for a day in the small desert city of Alice Springs. With nerves running high and the solar-powered vehicles beginning to show the wear of 2 tough days of driving, the teams are forced to pause and patiently field a day's worth of media attention. After rugged days driving and camping in the outback, it's a bit unsettling to not be moving southward.

The race has been packed with drama, beginning at literally the starting line.

A Dutch team from the University of Delft, named Nuon after its main sponsor, has won the race ever since 2001 with its car Nuna, and the team is being closely watched to see if they can dominate once again under a news set of rules and vehicle requirements. But mere seconds before they were about to leave the starting line, Nuna's motor controller failed. As other cars pulled off the line and raced away, the young engineers from the University of Delft were dashing to and from their support vehicles, unpacking a spare motor controller and replacing parts at lightning speeds.

Half an hour later they were on the road.

Lucky for them, the race start is staggered to accommodate the 30+ vehicles that were heading down the road to Adelaide. Because the breakdown happened before their start time had officially come up, Nuna was simply pushed to the back of the line and they made up the lost time after 5 p.m., when all the other teams were expected to stop for the day. Instead of a total loss of time, it meant lots of tricky maneuvering to pass all the teams in front.

But the University of Michigan's vehicle, Continuum, had an even more traumatic start. Their solar car, which was touted as potentially the best design of the year, crashed into the car in front of it a few minutes past the starting line, crushing the front two rows of solar cells. The team was forced to pull out for the day to reshape the body and reconfigure the solar array to not use the damaged rows, and Michigan rejoined the race a day later, a 1000 kilometers behind the rest of the cars.

By the end of the first day, Nuon was trailing about 7 minutes behind Umicore, a Belgian team. In the second day, Nuon overtook Umicore as the Belgians dealt with a failing steering system:

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It was a long haul on a bumpy road, with crosswinds strong enough to throw a normal vehicle off its course, potentially causing real trouble for the ultra-light, 200-kilogram solar cars. Nuon had to pull onto the shoulder of the highway twice, once to replace a tire that was completely worn down, and once to replace a broken shock damper. Here's a crew member sending Nuna back on the road:

nuna_running.jpg

The road itself is harsh enough, but there's more to this race than distance. First off, there's the road kill: One of Nuon's support cars drives up to an hour ahead to assess upcoming weather and road conditions, with a designated shoveler who does the dirty work of removing downed kangaroos from Nuna's path.

And road trains: The very long trucks, often pulling three trailers, can be wider than their lanes and generate a strong gust of wind as they pass, enough to blow the hatch open off the top of a solar car, as happened to one of Nuna's drivers.

And the dust devils: These upwellings of air, similar to small tornadoes, stir up dust and debris and can slam into passing vehicles with surprising force.

So after a day of showers and battery-charging in Alice Springs, the teams will put their solar cars back on the road Wednesday morning and, if all goes well, reach Adelaide in two days.

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