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A Little Bit of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing When Discussing Nanotech

I came across this tidbit that gave me a bit of chuckle.

Apparently, itâ''s an excerpt from a book entitled â''The Design of Life.â'' I am guessing that the book is supposed to be a kind of defense of â''Intelligent Designâ''. But I am not sure. I canâ''t be bothered with that kind of drivel to actually find out.

But the reasoning process used in this little snippet is hysterical. Apparently, skeptics believed nanotechnology would never work because â''such small machines are unworkable.â'' Umh, should someone put him in touch with the Foresight Institute and the National Nanotechnology Initiative just to get his definition of nanotech straight? Nahâ'¿

It turns out the skeptics reached their close-minded perspective based on â''Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principleâ''. Yikes! Gee and I always thought it was based on Van der Waal forces and Brownian motion, nothing quite as esoteric as quantum physics.

I am beginning to think there may be a new law in physics that states that anyone who uses the term â''Heisenbergâ''s Uncertainty Principleâ'' and is not more than well acquainted with physics is talking a lot of nonsense.

I understand that this is the norm in public debate, but for me itâ''s just a pity when nanotech gets dragged into it.

Overcoming the Funding Gap in Nanotech

About five years ago I helped organize a conference that contained a panel session called â''Bridging the Funding Gapâ''. At the time, this was a matter of some concern. How were innovations in nanotech going to move from government funding at research institutes and universities towards commercial markets?

The answers were not clear at the time, and now while things may be a little clearer they may be less hopeful.

This state of affairs is highlighted in a recent post over at TNTLog â''Can the VC Model Handle Emerging Technologies?â''. The answer seems to be an unequivocal â''noâ''.

As pointed out in the piece, the Venture Capital model (a 40-year-old model as pointed out in the article) requires some kind of financial exit within seven years of the initial investment. With early-stage companies developing emerging technologies, and in particular nanotech, seven years is just about where things get anywhere near markets.

The landscape today for many of these early-stage nanotech companies is like coming across one carcass of bones after another in the desert. Some of the brightest stars of nanotech five or six years ago have had their IP portfolios sold off for as little as $1,000.

To some extent, the funding gap question has been answered in that large companies are now spending the most money in R&D and innovation in nanotech. In other words, we are more likely to see the cure for cancer, the next breakthrough innovation in electronics, or a viable alternative energy source come from the labs of large industrial company than from a spin-out from a university lab.

But this model certainly does not cover all the possibilities for innovation, and will likely preclude important breakthroughs made outside of it to make it to market.

But the financing model for this type of innovation clearly does not seem to be the VC model. Whatever model is finally used, it is clear that it will need to stay in that investment for a lot longer than seven years.

US Air Force Tanker Acquisition Fiasco Is Difficult to Explain

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday released its detailed (although redacted) reasons as to why they sustained Boeingâ''s protest of the award of the new USAF refueling tanker program to the Northrop Grumman-led team. It makes for grim reading.

The GAO found that â''(1) the Air Force did not evaluate the offerorsâ'' technical proposals under the key system requirements subfactor of the mission capability factor in accordance with the weighting established in the RFPâ''s evaluation criteria; (2) a key technical discriminator relied upon in the selection decision in favor of Northrop Grumman relating to the aerial refueling area of the key system requirements subfactor, was contrary to the RFP; (3) the Air Force did not reasonably evaluate the capability of Northrop Grummanâ''s proposed aircraft to refuel all current Air Force fixed-wing, tanker-compatible aircraft using current Air Force procedures, as required by the RFP; (4) the Air Force conducted misleading and unequal discussions with Boeing with respect to whether it had satisfied an RFP objective under the operational utility area of the key system requirements subfactor; (5) Northrop Grummanâ''s proposal took exception to a material solicitation requirement related to the product support subfactor; (6) the Air Force did not reasonably evaluate military construction (MILCON) costs associated with the offerorsâ'' proposed aircraft consistent with the RFP; and (7) the Air Force unreasonably evaluated Boeingâ''s estimated non-recurring engineering costs associated with its proposed system development and demonstration (SDD)."

These are non-trivial errors, and not easily understandable given the highly political and extremely controversial nature of the acquisition (see here for a good summary of the history of this procurement), or that the US Air Force senior acquisition officials claimed that this was its most thorough, transparent and fair acquisition ever.

To wit, at a news conference announcing the award on 29 February 2008, then Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne said, â''Today's announcement is the culmination of years of tireless work and attention to detail by our acquisition professionals and our source selection team, who have been committed to maintaining integrity, providing transparency and promoting a fair competition for this critical aircraft program. They took the time to gain a thorough understanding of each proposal. They provided continuous feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, and they gave the offerors insight into the Air Force's evaluation.â''

Mrs. Sue Payton, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, added at the same news conference that, â''â'¿ I can't stress enough what an incredibly open and transparent and rigorous first selection we have gone through. For months and months, we have been telling each offeror where their weaknesses were, where their strengths were, and so they've had a lot of opportunity to communicate with us and to make sure we were not talking past each other.â''

Mrs. Payton also added that, â''There was absolutely no bias in this award.â''

The GAO report seems to directly contradict many of these statements. I cannot fathom how the Air Force so badly messed up this acquisition. The Air Force knew that it was going to be scrutinized with a fine tooth comb, so everything they did had to be as Caesar's wife, above suspicion.

The questions being raised - fairly or unfairly - fall into "there was overt bias involved," which would be devastating for the Air Force's credibility and its senior leadership, or as the Brits say, it was a major cock-up. Neither explanation reflects well on the Air Force.

The Air Force has 60 days to respond to the GAO recommendations, which are that the â''Air Force reopen discussions with the offerors, obtain revised proposals, re-evaluate the revised proposals, and make a new source selection decision, consistent with this decision. If the Air Force believes that the RFP, as reasonably interpreted, does not adequately state its needs, the agency should amend the solicitation prior to conducting further discussions with the offerors. If Boeingâ''s proposal is selected for award, the Air Force should terminate the contract awarded to Northrop Grumman."

Congress really needs to dig into what happened here, and determine whether Air Force acquisition, which has been teetering on the edge of disaster for over fifteen years, is now totally broken.

Worst of all, of course, is that Air Force pilots are increasingly be placed at risk because the Air Forceâ''s aging tanker fleet â'' the average age of the KC-135 tankers is over 46 years â'' is going to take even longer to replace. The replacement process started in 2001, and here it is mid-2008. The lack of tankers is hindering Air Force operations, even though the Air Force likes to pretend the impacts are minor. My friends in the service are telling me otherwise.

I have been working a story for over a year on the problems in defense acquisition that is scheduled to appear later this autumn. It is not an altogether happy one either.

Airlines are running out of gas. Literally.

airstatraversecity_fueltruck_75.jpgHigh fuel prices are hammering the airline industry. I know that, and that all these annoying surcharges recently announcedâ''for luggage, for drinksâ''are attempts to somehow make up for the extra fuel costs.

What I didnâ''t know until yesterday was that airlines are also saving money on fuel by simply not filling up the tanks as high as they ought to. The FAA requires that an aircraft carry enough fuel to reach its destination and its most distant alternate airport, plus 45 minutes worth. Itâ''s not to the airlineâ''s advantage to carry any more than the minimum requirementâ''more fuel means a heavier plane; a heavier plane gets worse mileage.

Of course, the calculations are based on estimatesâ''estimated passenger weights, estimated luggage, estimated speed. And since my experience yesterday, Iâ''m thinking the airlines are estimating a little low.

I flew from San Francisco to Newark on a Continental 737. Great weather on both ends, only a little turbulence. A lovely flight, actually, best Iâ''ve had in a long time; the flight attendants were cheerful, passengers got two drink services and a bagel-and-egg sandwich without charge.

A little more than four hours into the flight, the pilot reported that weâ''d be landing about half an hour ahead of schedule, and flight attendants began collecting trash in preparation for our approach. Perhaps ten minutes later the pilot announced that weâ''d have to slow down a little to get in line for landing, but weâ''d still get in well ahead of schedule. I was thrilled; this would be my first flight in at least a year that landed on time, perhaps I could call a friend for dinner.

And then, just a few minutes later, the pilot came on the P.A. system again. â''Uh, folks, weâ''re going to make a quick stop for refueling.â'' Huh? Passengers looked at each other in surprise. Flight attendants passed rapidly through the cabin checking seat backs and tray tables and strapped themselves in. Minutes later, we landed at Stewart Air National Guard Base, less than 100 miles from our destination. After a long taxi past National Guard cargo planes, we parked and waited for the fuel trucks.

I was flabbergasted. Iâ''ve logged a lot of airline miles over the years; Iâ''ve never been on a flight that ran out of gas. The pilot blamed the problem on air traffic delays; but from what he had said the delay seemed minimal; certainly not enough to eat up the

45-minute reserve the FAA requires. I wondered about the fact that weâ''d gotten so far ahead of scheduleâ''likely weâ''d been flying a little faster than is optimal for fuel conservation. I also looked around me at the planeload of European tourists heading home, and wondered if theyâ''d been taking advantage of the cheap dollar and ended up bringing back a lot of extra luggage.

Turns out, though, that the Department of Transportation recently singled Continental out for having the most of what it calls â''minimum fuel declarationsâ'' into Newark airport last yearâ''96, more than twice the amount it made the previous year. Declaring â''minimum fuelâ'' flags the air traffic controllers that, if incoming planes need to be delayed, they shouldnâ''t delay this particular flight too much. The Department of Transportation also found out that Continental has been pressuring pilots to cut back on the amount of fuel they carry, for ultimately the pilot makes that decision. In October, the airline sent out a memo to pilots pointing out that â''adding fuel indiscriminately without critical thinking ultimately reduces profit sharing and possibly pension funding.â'' Gee, ya think thatâ''s why I ended up sitting on a deserted runway for an hour and a half?

Next time, Continental, forget the bagel, just fill up the tank.

Imperfect is just Perfect for Nanotubes in Solar Cells

Dye-sensitized solar cells, also known as Grÿtzel cells for one of the their co-inventors Michael Grÿtzel of the Ã'cole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, have been a promising alternative to silicon cells since 1991.

Basically, they use an organic dye that captures the incoming photons from sunlight to produce excited electrons.

The design of these cells typically includes a transparent, conductive coating that serves as the anode. The coatings are usually made from an oxide such as titanium dioxide and are placed on glass. Using glass has its obvious limitations and alternatives such as platinum are prohibitively expensive.

As a result, researchers have been experimenting with carbon nanotubes to replace these films. It was necessary that the CNTs achieve optimal transparency, conductivity and catalytic function. Unfortunately, instead of being optimal, they were more in the mid range for these areas.

But researchers have found that if they the give the CNTs imperfections by exposing them to ozone, their catalytic function improves dramatically.

More efficient and cheaper are the demands of renewable energy alternatives. Nanotechnology research seems to be listening.

Out of Africa: Ingenuity from a Nairobi social network

Nairobi, one of Africa's most dynamic cities, hosted an unusual conference last Saturday -- an unlikely gathering of Afro-geeks: programmers, systems builders, youthful techie dreamers, and mobile-phone enthusiasts. Nairobi is home to Africa's most celebrated mobile company, Safaricom -- and millions of mobile-phone users. That alone creates a giant East African test-bed for all sorts of experiments in new applications.

These experiments have to come from somewhere -- and that's mainly Europe and the U.S. But more than half of Nairobi's residents are under the age of 25, and increasingly the techie slice of these youth is getting swept up in the fervor around mobile technology. One eruption is Barcamp Nairobi, which is really a social movement organized around technical themes.

Last Saturday these themes were well explored in all-day conference attended by about 300 people -- a number that far exceeded organizer expectations. Nairobi is the most cosmopolitan African city outside of South Africa, so some of the people in attendance hailed from Europe, the U.S. and Asia. But the majority were Kenyans, and they were eager to brainstorm. Like youth everywhere, they want a piece of the action -- and the quickest way to get into the action is to create applications for mobile phones.

But the appeal to this unusual African gathering was not commercial. The call went out to bloggers, designers and codewriters, an overlapping trio of pursuits that often are carried out by real characters. Last Saturday, in Nairobi, dozens of them got a chance to show their stuff.

Barcamp is a work in progress, a social network that may be laying the foundation for an explosion of unanticipated ingenuity. Like much of what is promising in sub-Saharan Africa, the youthful geek community faces many problems, most notably the specter of brain drain. Good jobs are scarce so people do look elsewhere, out of Africa, for work. But community can often trump capitalism, and some of these Nairobi techies may find that often spirit means more than money.

Out of Africa: microhydro lights rural Kenya

The big problems with national electricity grids in Africa get a lot of attention, but for most Africans who live in rural areas -- of the grid -- the only hope to get electricity at all is to do it themselves.

I've long been a promoter of the idea that home-grown electricity systems based on tiny dams and so-called "micro-hydro" systems can provide a lot of relief for poor or marginalized African peasants. There is hardly a bandwagon behind inexpensive micro-hydro electricity systems, even though tens of thousands of them could be installed easily in such water-rich and electricity-poor countries as Uganda and Malawi, for instance. But micro-hydro in Africa is growing nicely, providing hope for the future in an otherwise gloomy electricity outlook for the world's poorest region.

Reports this month out of central Kenya -- where I happen to be at the time of posting -- naturally caught my interest. Residents of a village named Kibai are benefit from a miniature hydro generating facility at a small waterfall on a river called the Mukengeria. The electricity generated by the system isn't much actually; an estimated 2.5 kilowatts a day. Yet the power is enough to charge batteries for mobiles, run a few computers, a television set and some small industrial machinery.

Sounds modest but it adds up to a revolution in daily life in Kibai.

Such projects can be easily duplicated, so long as prices for the basic materials, can be brought down through mass purchasing. The turbine is especially important to get right. Kibai relied on a United Nations agency for help (the U.N.'s Industrial Development Organization). Not exactly a low-cost provider, the U.N. deserves credit for keeping alive the micro-hydro dream.

The real leap forward will come when governments offer micro-hydro packages in do-it-yourself kits -- and by the tens of thousands. Anywhere water runs, even a little a bit, there is the promise of electricity. Governments are showing more interest in the concept, though not a single African country currently is supporting more than a token effort, which is too bad.

Is Cap and Trade the Only Path to Carbon Reduction?

Ask an economist for the best way to reduce carbon emissions, and the answer almost always is a carbon tax: drive up the cost of emitting CO2, and then let free markets find the technologies to avoid or reduce emissions. Ask a politician, and the answer is almost always cap-and-trade: set annual ceilings for carbon emissions, sell or issue emissions allowances to the major emitters, and let them trade the allowances so that those best able to cut emissions do so first. Every half-wit knows that either scheme will drive up energy and electricity prices. But economists prefer the tax because itâ''s technology-neutral and virtually self-administering, while politicians dislike the tax because itâ''s a tax and prefer to make it look as if in their system the emitters are bearing almost all compliance costs.

The Lieberman-Warner cap and trade bill that was introduced in the Senate a couple of weeks ago, only to be withdrawn moments later because its backers lacked the clout to bring it to a vote, reflected the politiciansâ'' point of view. Because the tax route is so unpopular in the corridors of power, and because both McCain and Obama have endorsed cap and trade, itâ''s been considered almost a foregone conclusion that sooner or later the United States will have a carbon trading system. But the alacrity with which the Lieberman-Warner forces folded has prompted some speculation that other approaches to carbon reduction may turn out to be attractive after all. Sure, the billâ''s backers figured that next year, with a strongly Democratic Congress and a president sympathetic to cap and trade, it will be much easier to get a bill through. But if they really had the courage of their convictions, shouldnâ''t they have hung on a little longerâ''at least long enough to get it across to the public that this is an important item on the political agenda? A lot of editorialists and commentators certainly thought so.

One thing that alarmed the billâ''s backers was the insistence by its opponents, mostly Republican, on having the whole bill, which runs to hundreds of pages, read out loud in session. Thatâ''s a tactic that could end up backfiring. If carbon trading will create an administrative nightmare, then the answer may beâ''not to do nothing about climate changeâ''but to enact a carbon tax. Days after the billâ''s 2008 demise, the New York Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin drew attention in his blog to a proposal from the climatologist James E. Hansen for what Hansen calls a â''carbon tax with 100 percent dividend.â''

Taking his inspiration from freelance economist Peter Barnes, who has proposed creation of a â''sky trustâ'' consisting of the proceeds from sales of emissions allowances, Hansen suggests an escalating carbon tax, with 100 percent of the proceeds fed directly back to the public, with each taxpayer getting the same monthly share. Hansenâ''s formulation is geared to satisfy both economists, who donâ''t want politicians to treat a carbon tax as just an easy source of revenue, and political progressives, who want taxes to be progressive. Since richer people tend to use more energy and emit more carbon, a carbon tax will tend to take a bigger bite than they get back, when proceeds are rebated equally.

Carbon trading has come under considerable criticism not only on the political right but the political left as well, often for overlapping and complementary reasons. The Hansen-Barnes approach could be appealing at both ends of the political spectrum, to the extent concern about possibly catastrophic climate change is real.

To the extent carbon trading loses its aura of political inevitably, the door opens for other possibilities as well. Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official and author of a devastating critique of the â''hydrogen economyâ'' vision, has a commentary in todayâ''s Nature Reports Climate Change (June 20), in which he condemns cap and trade as too slow and indirect. Romm wants to ban construction of coal fired plants, unless they make full provision for carbon capture and storage, and at the same time provide generous tax credits and incentives for energy efficiency and low-carbon generation and fuels.

â''These are all features of the climate plan of the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama,â'' says Romm, showing his hand. But note: Obama is not the only candidate proposing a direct attack on climate and energy problems. McCain said this week that he wants to add 45 nuclear reactors to the nationâ''s fleet of atomic power plants.

Attention Walmart shoppers: digital TV converters on aisle 37


Iâ''ve been following the digital tv transitionâ''the countdown to Feb. 17, 2009, when analog television in the U.S. goes darkâ''pretty closely. In general, I think the Department of Commerce has been doing a good job getting the word out about the transition through public service announcements and a p.r. campaign. If you watch any English or Spanish language TV at all, and donâ''t Tivo through the commercials, you have likely heard multiple times about the $40 coupons available for people who need converter boxes and donâ''t want to either subscribe to cable or buy a new television. (Iâ''m actually in that group (though my husband is pushing for a new TV), are is my mother and aunt.) This group includes almost 19 percent of the U.S. TV households, or over 20 million people, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, and others who want to convert second or third televisions in their homes, even though their newest TV is already digital.

Thereâ''s no denying there are problems with the transition; my coupons (they look and function like debit cards) took months to arrive after I ordered them in late January, and expire next month. Stores donâ''t always have converter boxes in stock; last week, during a meeting of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, several Congressmen proposed extending the expiration dates, since a reported 60 percent of coupons issued are expiring without being used. (You canâ''t order new coupons after yours expire; itâ''s two per household, thatâ''s it.) The FCC will likely run out of coupons long before the transition date; Congress budgeted $1.5 billion for the program, but that wonâ''t cover everybody. So far, nearly 17 million coupons have been requested, over 15 million mailed, and just over 3 million used.

Enough backstory. Yesterday I went into Walmart, coupons in my purse, digital recorder in hand (Iâ''m working on a podcast about the digital TV transition). I expected that Iâ''d ask about coupon-qualifying converter boxes and my question would baffle the sales

clerk. Heck, itâ''s hard to get someone at Walmart to tell me where the cat food is.

â''Theyâ''re in aisle 37,â'' the Walmart associate I approached reported, pointing a few aisles to her right. â''We only have the RCA ones in stock right now.

â''Uh, do you know anything about them?â''

â''The RCA ones are better than the Magnavox.â''

â''They are?â''

â''Oh yeah.â''

Wow. I was impressed. She really seemed to know something. â''Are you selling a lot of them?â''

â''Uh huh.â''

She seemed so knowledgable, I was tempted to ask her about the cat food, but I resisted and went straight to the converter display, about six shelves, half empty. I wasnâ''t the only one holding my coupon card and comparing it against the box to make sure the RCA gizmo qualified for the discount. â''Radio Shack is sold out,â'' another customer offered as she took a box off the shelf. She wasnâ''t happy about having to go to two stores. Frankly, she wasn't happy about the digital TV transition in general, and wasnâ''t planning to hook it up until she absolutely had to next year. But I guess she heard the news that she'd have to do it eventually and that she needed to get and redeem a coupon while the coupons are still available.

I just bought one converter, though I have two coupons. Including tax, it cost $10 and change over the $40 coupon price. The checkout clerk grabbed my card and scanned it since I was a little slow getting it into the scanner; I had to sign for the purchase, as if it were a credit card. She also confirmed that converter sales were hot.

Next: off to a specialized electronics store for converter number two.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

A Truly Green Greenland in Human Time Arrests Mind

Perhaps nothing beats the Sahara for feelings of timelessness and unboundedness, but surely the worldâ''s icy deserts take second place in the metaphysical imagination. Itâ''s more than a little disconcerting to learn then, in the June 20 issue of Science magazine, that just 400,000 years agoâ''well into the era in which modern humans were evolvingâ''the southern reaches of Greenland were not just green but covered with vast spruce forests. A second article in the same issue discusses two very sudden warmings Greenland experienced 15 thousand and 11 thousand years ago, while a perspective piece addresses the implications of Greenlandâ''s climate changes for tomorrowâ''s world.


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