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Time to Start Mourning the Living in Nanotech

I was alerted to the recent news that Unidym was closing its Houston offices and consolidating their operations in California.

Some see the news of the Houston plant closing regretfully as the end of Richard Smalleyâ''s Carbon Nanotech Inc. (CNI). They really shouldnâ''t.

They should have counted the sale of CNI over a year ago to Unidym for $5.4 million worth of Arrowhead Research shares, which considering the capital that had already been pumped into CNI was like getting the company for free, as the final denouement of the company.

This sorry tale was told some time ago on this blog.

But what should really get people concerned is that Unidym seems to be getting sold off in bits and pieces at bargain basement prices to Tokyo Electron.

Meanwhile as Rome is burning, Technology Review plays the fiddle describing how Unidymâ''s conducting nanotube films are about to hit the market. I think this is what you call cruel irony.

"Objective" Information from EU Project on Nanotech Provides Much Needed Laughs

These are serious times and as a result much of what you read is quite serious assessments of our problems and serious solutions.

But European Union projects on nanotech always seem to provide some light-hearted amusement even in the most serious of times, albeit unintentionally.

The latest is a project called observatoryNANO (I have never quite figured out why these European projects insist on odd capitalization), which is supposed to provide â''European decision-makers in government, industry, and finance lack objective information for their decisions when considering a rapidly changing field of technology such as N&Nâ'' [thatâ''s â''nanoscience and nanotechnologyâ'' to us uninitiated].

TNTLog had some great fun at the expense of this project by turning up some of the gibberish that it was publishing as â''economic dataâ''. The project must have become aware of some of the silliness that they had on their website and now the page is â''under constructionâ''.

But it was a bit too late. Some of the fun stuff can still be found on the TNTLog:

Scientists have invented a plastic solar cell that can turn the sunâ''s power into electrical energy, even on a cloudy day. The plastic material uses nanotechnology and contains the first solar cells able to harness the sunâ''s invisible, infrared rays. The breakthrough has led theorists to predict that plastic solar cells could one day become five times more efficient than current solar cell technology.

And this

The primary driving force behind flexible displays is to solve the need of humans to interface with electronics that are undergoing continuous miniaturization.

The secondary push for flexible displays is the desire to place computers in objects that they previously did not belong. This could be shirts, golf clubs, or watches.

No matter how much money the EC poured into this project, it was all worth it when you can generate copy like that that really can put a smile on your otherwise dreary day.

Attack of the Wireless Worms

As reported last year on this Website, a group of academic researchers has recently shown that a new and disturbing form of computer infection is readily spread: the epidemic copying of malicious code from wireless router to wireless router, without the participation of intervening computers. Such an epidemic could easily strike cities, where the ranges of wireless routers often overlap. All thatâ''s needed is that enough people fail to configure their routers with good passwords and strong encryption. And as anyone who has ever (purposefully or inadvertently) hooked up a neighborâ''s wireless network knows, unencrypted wireless networks are all too common.

The study will soon appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. So keep an eye on the PNAS Website if you want to see the details.

Like most good guys who discover a computer-security vulnerability, the authors of this study are quick to suggest remediesâ''specifically: â''force users to change default passwordsâ'' and â''the adoption of WPAâ'' (the cryptographic system meant to replace the easily-broken WEP scheme). In other words, if you donâ''t want to get caught up in such an epidemic, stay home, close the windows, and lock the door securely.

I suspect that many people learning of these frightening results will have the same reaction. Choosing a sensible administration password for your router only makes sense. Itâ''s your router after all; you donâ''t need to make it an attractive target for drive-by hackers. But before picking out your new WPA key, take a moment to consider whether it wouldnâ''t be better to leave your wireless network open.

â''But I donâ''t want freeloaders piggybacking on my wireless connection to the Internet,â'' you say. That sentiment makes senseâ''until you examine it closely. If a neighbor uses his or her own network connection instead of yours, will your available bandwidth be any different? I suspect it would be exceedingly hard for you to notice any slow down. Consider also why the Internet has value to you: because many people are connected to it. So logic demands that you should want to do all you can to foster connectivity. Here now is a perfect opportunity to think globally and act locallyâ''so long as it doesnâ''t violate your terms of service with your ISP! For more than just my glib remarks on this very interesting subject, I recommend reading Whacking, Joyriding and War-Driving: Roaming Use of Wi-Fi and the Law.

The authors of the PNAS paper point out how difficult it will be to get people to choose good passwords: â''Unfortunately, the dangers of poorly chosen passwords have been widely publicized for two decades now, and there has been little evidence of a change in the publicâ''s behavior.â'' They seem to think that getting more folks to adopt WPA is a more workable strategy. So let me offer my thoughts on what might be a better solution.

Suppose router manufacturers modified the software that runs these devices so that users could not log in as administrators wirelessly. That way, youâ''d have to be physically plugged in to change the routerâ''s firmware. Such a change would make a wireless router that is straight out of the box immune to this kind of infection. And if manufacturers could also be coaxed to make the default password vary from unit to unit, youâ''d even be protected from malicious software on your computer that tries to take control of your router through a network cable.

Perhaps Iâ''m missing something, but such changes donâ''t seem all that hard to implement. If not, router makers of the world, please help us all rest peacefully, knowing that we arenâ''t having our routers hijacked or contributing to a city-wide plague of wireless worms.

AMD Launches New Line of "Shanghai" Processors

Advanced Micro Devices today announced the "widespread availability" of its new 45-nanometer Quad-Core Opteron processor, offering five low-power versions for servers and two 105-watt versions for high-performance computing architectures.

Formerly code-named Shanghai, the chips are aimed at IT customers "looking to do more with less," according to an informational page on the AMD website. The Sunnyvale, Calif., firm said the new Opteron processors deliver "up to 35 percent more performance with up to a 35 percent decrease in power consumption at idle."

It added that original equipment manufacturers will be able to offer more than 27 systems based on the 45-nm Opteron line this year.

The low-end Opteron HE chips will be priced from US $316 to $1514, and will work with two-, four- and eight-socket systems with speeds ranging from 2.1 GHz to 2.3 GHz, AMD said. The chipmaker has priced the high-end 8386 SE at $2649 and the Opteron 2386 SE at $1165.

Does Venture Capital Work for Emerging Technologies like Nanotech?

I think if you really pressed your typical venture capitalist on the origins of the universe, they might hedge a little but they would be forced to at least concede that whatever the origins might be, venture capitalists were surely at the center of it.

Thatâ''s why I got a chuckle from this headline on the political blog Huffington Post: â''Why Venture Capital is Key to Our Economic Recovery.â''

No sense in doubting that proposition because as the article quickly posits, â''One of the proven methods of deploying equity to finance innovation and the creation of new enterprises is venture capital.â''

It just depends on what you mean by â''provenâ''. Last November, the prickly egos of VCs were upset by a presentation given by Adeo Ressi at the Harvard Business School in which it was argued that the VC Industry is Broken.

As evidence of this, Ressi pointed to the fact that over the last five years returns on VC investment have fallen below the amount invested (see graphic below).


Whether this really constitutes the VC industry being broken has been hotly debated over the last months. But over at TNTLog the question of how venture capital has fared in nanotech has been chronicled and it has not been a pretty picture, see here and here, and even in a prescient moment six months before Ressiâ''s presentation the question was posed: Can the VC Model Handle Emerging Technologies?

In any event, before venture capital becomes the cure-all for what ails our economy, it might be time to take a second look at whether the forty-year-old VC model even works for emerging technologies.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett to Step Down in May

Culminating a week in which Intel Corporation reported a drop in annual revenue of 2 percent, a cut in chip prices across the board, a planned workforce reduction of up to 6000 employees, and the closing of four manufacturing and testing facilities, the longtime leader of the world's largest microprocessor firm has announced his intention to step down.

A statement from the company said that Craig R. Barrett, 69, chairman of the board of directors, will retire this May from active management of Intel Corp.

Since joining Intel in 1974, Barrett has served in various management roles leading to his tenure as chief executive officer from 1998 to 2005.

"Intel became the world's largest and most successful semiconductor company in 1992 and has maintained that position ever since," Barrett said in the statement.

"I'm extremely proud to have helped achieve that accomplishment and to have the honor of working with tens of thousands of Intel employees who every day put their talents to use to make Intel one of the premier technology companies in the world. I have every confidence that Intel will continue this leadership under the direction of Paul Otellini and his management team."

Barrett recently has been active in activities, including Intel's World Ahead Program, which brings information technology to emerging economies. He is also an advocate for international education and health-care initiatives.

Barrett also serves on the board of directors of the U.S. Semiconductor Industry Association and the National Academy of Engineering, among many other organizations. He is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a recipient of the IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal (â''For contributions to semiconductor manufacturing technology and leadership in business and in industry initiatives.â'').

"I want to thank Craig for his 35 years of tireless efforts on behalf of Intel," said Paul Otellini, Intel president and CEO.

"His legacy spans the creation of the best semiconductor manufacturing machine in the world, leading Intel for seven years as we emerged into a global powerhouse, and most recently as our industry's senior statesman and ambassador who has advocated the benefits of education and technology as forces for positive change. He has been my colleague, supervisor, mentor, and friend for these 35 years. I wish him the very best as he moves on to the next chapter in his life."

The announcement said Jane Shaw, a former pharmaceutical-industry executive who has served on Intel's board since 1993, will replace Barrett as chairman.

Will Obama Scrutinize the Nanotech Bill?

Despite my own reflection that the Obama administration will likely move forward with whatever nanotech bill Congress puts before it, there may be some reasons for the administration to take a second look.

While the House overwhelmingly passed the bill last fall, it never made it through the Senate. And even if it had made it through the Senate, it was unclear whether Bush would have signed it into law as his administration was forcing a number of changes that are described here by Robert Service.

Among one of the more controversial Bush administration provisions was the removal of the requirement that a specific percentage of NNI funds be spent on Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) research. And, frankly, that was the real change from all the other NNI bills.

It would seem that whatever form the bill finally takes will be satisfactory to certain factions within the nanotechnology community. But it seems the Obama administration is really taking science quite seriously, and may decide that they're not going to accept just any bill, but a good one.

Will A Delayed Analog TV Shutdown Fix the Transition? Not Likely.

digtv120-thumb.gifThe analog TV shutdown, at this writing, is still scheduled for 17 February; a proposal in Congress, supported by now-President Obama, would push that to 12 June. Would that solve any problems? For me personally, here in Palo Alto, Calif., yes; construction crews will be moving digital antennas around at the Sutro Tower broadcast site into the summer, a February shutdown is likely to leave me getting most my news and entertainment from the Internet until then.

For the nation as a whole, not likely. The reason for the proposed delay is that the coupon program has, on paper, run out of money; we need to wait until the program is better funded and more folks have an opportunity to order, receive, and cash in coupons. I'm just not getting how 12 June would be so much better than 17 February. Note that while more coupons have been requested than have been budgeted for, not all have been redeemed.

Here are the numbers. About 47,000,000 coupons have been mailed. Nearly 20,000,000 have been redeemed for boxes, 14,000,000 have expired. Another 2,500,000 people or so have requested coupons, but can't get them until more of the ones sent out expire. So giving folks more time to get their coupons before the transition day, it seems, would make everyone happy. That all makes sense when you just look at the numbers.

But look instead at what is likely going on behind those numbers. OK, 47,000,000 people saw the ads on TV urging them to get a coupon. They're not entirely sure if they need a coupon or not, but just in case, they'll order one. At least 14,000,000 and likely more whose coupons have yet to expire got the coupon in the mail and then forgot about it, realized that they hadn't understood the ads, that they have cable and don't need a coupon, or they subsequently bought a digital TV or are thinking about it. Or have simply stopped thinking about it at all. Some of these folks won't think about it again until the analog signal goes dark; then they'll want a new coupon, but won't be allowed to order it (two per household, expired or not). They won't be happy, whether shutdown is 17 February or 12 June.

Then there are the 20,000,000 who bought the boxes. Some, like me, installed them, and are either happily receiving a digital signal or have figured out that converting is going to be a lot more complex than simply installing a box. Based on anecdotal evidence, that's not a big number.

Instead, far more put that converter box package unopened in the closet, not understanding that while analog shutdown hasn't happened yet, they still can hook it up and start using it right now. They understood the message of the vast advertising campaign to mean that on 17 February they're going to have to hook up this box, and with a box in the closet, they feel prepared to do that. What they won't know until they hook it up is whether they'll need a new antenna, new wiring, or will be able to receive digital signals at all. Others are waiting to buy the box, some with a coupon, some just on their own, until analog shutdown happens.

These folks, no one knows exactly how many, are who will determine whether analog shutdown is a success or a nightmare. And we won't find out their stories until shutdown happens, be it 17 February or 12 June.

So turn it off already. And then figure out if more money needs to be put into the program, whether it's for more converter subsidies, or for installing new antennas on the roofs of senior citizens, or for subsidizing cable for low-income folks in digital dead zones.

See more of Spectrumâ''s coverage of the Day Analog TV Dies here.

Obama Staffers Find Technology at White House a Little Dated

The last time a new U.S. presidential administration moved into the White House, eight years ago, some staff members serving George W. Bush found the W's on their office keyboards missing. As legend has it, the cause was a bit of tomfoolery on the part of outgoing staffers who had served Bill Clinton and (defeated presidential candidate) Al Gore.

This time, there have been no reports of pranks involving PC keyboards, but some incoming staffers are grumbling a little about the equipment itself. To be blunt, they think it's old.

An article in today's Washington Post chronicles a number of problems faced by aides to the new president on their first day at work: disconnected phones, outdated software, missing security codes, and so on.

Overall, though, the Post article described a mood of disappointment yesterday among the plugged-in presidential support apparatus. These folks, after all, were responsible for using their state-of-the-art technology skills to get Barack Obama elected in the first place, using online social networking to raise vast amounts of money and staying in touch with their constituency around the clock with the latest electronics devices and software.

Now in charge in the most powerful office in the world, these staffers find themselves confronted by what can only be described as culture shock.

"It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told the Post about his workplace technology.

In something of a stretch, the newspaper account notes that the new White House Website had not been updated as of last night with the latest presidential orders from the historic first day, due to software glitches. Rest assured, though, it's working fine today.

And, in perhaps the most telling piece of a cultural disconnect between the Bush administration and the Obama one, it turns out that the new regime are Macintosh users, who are used to working in the latest OS X flavor, as opposed to the Windows XP machines they find themselves inheriting.

"It is what it is," a new White House staff member, speaking off the record, told the Post.

Those are words that should sound familiar to anyone starting a new job and finding a really old PC left behind by the last person.

UPDATE: IBM "very much involved" with Blue Brain Project

On January 8, I wrote that IBM had pulled out of the collaboration with the Blue Brain project.

It's not true; but actually to appropriate Peter Woit's complaint about string theory, it's not even wrong. Let's unpack.

The reporting on the Blue Brain project so far has been heavy on hand-waving and light on technology and business details. That might have something to do with the fact that not even the people at IBM are clear on their relationship with the Blue Brain project. Even at IBM's T.J. Watson research campus in New York, where much of the Blue Brain effort was happening between 2005 and 2007, the wires got crossed, leading to the misapprehension that "IBM Research completed the first phase of the Blue Brain project and we are not involved with the second phase." A senior staff person for Blue Gene computing confirmed what the PR person had told me, saying that IBM and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Blue Brain's home, had no formal ties and that Blue Brain project director Henry Markram could put his Blue Brain on the next generation of IBM's Blue Gene, or that he could put it on some other company's supercomputer. "Our architecture would be the path of least resistance," he shrugged.

IBM Zurich leaped to the rescue with a full correction on the status of the IBM/Blue Brain collaboration.

David Cremese, the manager of Deep Computing Programs at IBM Zurich, told me that the first phase of Markram's project is complete but that IBM intends very much to collaborate on future phases. It is very likely, he says, that the next generation of Blue Brain will be housed on the next generation of Blue Gene. And Markram confirms that the Blue Brain project is not going to continue without the Blue Gene/P. This is not quite like upgrading your laptop. A system this complex is riddled with programming specific to the architecture of the machine, so it would be very time consuming and expensive to switch horses mid-stream.

For Markram, though, this presents an opportunity to clear up some muddy reporting about his project. "There is a serious misconception that IBM somehow funded or donated to support the Blue Brain Project," he says. "The press through the last 3 years has always got this wrong." In many reports, the IBM tie was overemphasized. Blue Brain is funded primarily by the Swiss government and secondarily by Markram's grants and some donations from private individuals. As far as I can tell, the misapprehension that IBM funded Blue Brain started when IBM sent EPFL a Blue Gene/L below market price. Markram says that's because the Blue Gene/L was a prototype at the time and EPFL was a beta site.

IBM also paid for two postdoctoral fellows to the Blue Brain effort: one postdoc was sent to Switzerland from T.J. Watson to work at EPFL, and a second postdoc remained at Watson to work on computational neuroscience algorithms for Blue Brain. However, it turns out Watson had no intention to support (via post-doctoral fellows, discounted supercomputers, or any other kind of assistance) the project past 2007.

The same is not true of IBM Zurich. "IBM is very much involved and is a trusted technology partner of the project," IBM Zurich media analyst Susan Orozco says. "The team that developed the Blue Gene technology [at Watson] will continue to collaborate with the Blue Brain project," adds Cremese.

The takeaway: Blue Brain is just fine. IBM, well, they just need to get their stories straight.


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