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Junior, the robotic car, has been very very good to Stanford

JuniorSRT_med.jpg

Junior, the Stanford Racing Teamâ''s entry into the DARPA Urban Challenge, came in second in the national contest, held Nov. 3rd in Victorville, Calif., losing first place honors to Carnegie Mellon Universityâ''s entry, Boss. Both cars followed California traffic law and completed the complicated course, Boss simply did it faster.

In this game, however, second place isnâ''t half bad. The Stanford team took home a $1 million prize, and bragging rights; several vehicles crashed while negotiating traffic circles and intersections and contending with traffic; other cars simply became confused and gave up.

And second place looked even better this month when Volkswagen of America, one of the sponsors of Stanfordâ''s entry, announced it would donate $5.75 million to the university to create the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab (VAIL), to continue to work on automotive research, particularly autonomous driving. The Lab will include a 8,000 square foot research facility and an outdoor test driving space.

Perhaps the sight of a driverless vehicle will soon be as commonplace on the Stanford campus as it was in Victorville, Calif., in early November.

Said Stanford Racing Team co-leader Mike Montemerlo, â''At first when a robot drove by weâ''d all get up and clap, and just over the course of two or three hours, it got to the point where youâ''d turn around and say, â''Oh, there goes another robot.â'' Itâ''s amazing how quickly you acclimate to this idea of robots driving around in a city.â''

On Eve of Bali Climate Confab, Kyoto Wins One, Loses One

With representatives of virtually all the worldâ''s countries about to convene in Bali to discuss what should be done next to deal with climate change, two recent events are sure to affect the political chemistry. On 24 Nov., Australia elected a new government that has pledged to promptly ratify the Kyoto Protocolâ''the 1997 addendum to a 1992 treaty, which commits the advanced industries countries to collectively cut their emissions by about 5 percent by 2012, compared to 1990 levels. But just the day after the Australian election, Canadaâ'' prime minister told a Commonwealth meeting that Kyoto was a mistake that the world must never repeat.

Australiaâ''s ratification will leave the United States diplomatically isolated, as the only industrial country not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. But at least its negotiators will have some support from Canada's conservative leader, Stephen Harper. Speaking at the end of a Commonwealth meeting in Kampala, Uganda, he denounced the protocol for subjecting several dozen industrial countries to binding emissions targets, without holding countries with the fastest growing emissionsâ''notably China and Indiaâ''to similar targets. Harper promised that Canada will enter the Bali negotiations with a simple position: all major polluters must be included, or there will be no follow-on deal.

Canada, unlike its giant neighbor to the south, has ratified Kyoto. But the reasons for its recent change of heart are not hard to discern. Since 1990, despite its Kyoto commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent, its emissions have actually climbed by 25.3 percent. Those of the supposedly delinquent United States increased by 16.3, a very poor performance by global standards but considerably better than Canadaâ''s. This is an acutely embarrassing position for a country that likes to adopt an international attitude almost as high-minded as Swedenâ''s.

Rather than apologize at Bali, Harper obviously decided to go on the offensive and say what he really believes. In the past Harper has described Kyoto as a â''money sucking socialist scheme,â'' according to Canadian press reports.

Australiaâ''s situation is quirkier. Before last weekâ''s election, the previous government was planning to go to Bali arguing that it was actually meeting its Kyoto target, despite its refusal to ratify the protocol. Because Australiaâ''s economy is so dependent on fossil energy, the country persuaded Kyoto negotiators to give it a 2012 target 8 percent higher than 1990 (making it just one of three countries to obtain such a dispensation). Then, according to two professors at Australian National University writing recently in the Canberra Times, Australiaâ''s negotiators also got the Kyoto conclave to take emissions changes resulting from modified land use into account. As it happened, for reasons entirely coincidental, Australia had just registered from 1990 to 1996 a 50 percent decrease in emissions associated with land clearing. This meant that Australia immediately inherited, upon finalization of the protocol, a net 6 percent decrease in emissions, relative to 1990.

Today, taking land use changes into account, Australiaâ''s emissions are just 6.3 percent higher than in 1990; without accounting for land, which is the more usual way of citing such numbers, the increase is 25.6 percent. Practically speaking, in terms of how Australia sees its record and what it can immediately accomplish, thereâ''s probably not much difference between the positions of the old and new governments. Symbolically and diplomatically, however, the significance of Australiaâ''s Kyoto switch will be immense. U.S. negotiators will arrive at Bali on the defensiveâ''but taking some consolation, at least, that the sometimes self-righteous neighbor to the north is having second thoughts about the Kyoto scheme.

Nintendo ranks last in Greenpeace's updated Guide to Greener Electronics

RecyclingSymbolGreen.JPGGreenpeace has updated its Guide to Greener Electronics just in time for a holiday shopping season in which more and more consumers are trying to shop green, that is, for environmentally friendly products. And Nintendo received the dubious distinction of being the first company ever to receive a perfect zero, putting it at the bottom of the rankings.

The organization looked at the top 18 manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs, and games consoles and rated them in terms of their chemical policies and practice, including their efforts to phase out PVCs and brominated flame retardants; and their policies and practices on taking back and recycling their products. A perfect score is 10, calculated from a 30-point scale.

Top of the heap was Sony Ericsson, with a 7.7, up from second place thanks to its improved reporting of old mobile phones recycled. The companyâ''s products are due to be free of brominated flame retardants by January 1, and Sony Ericsson is clearing phthalates out of its product line as well. Samsung moved from eighth place to second,

also with a 7.7. Samsung has eliminated PVC from its LCD panels and is doing better on recycling.

Taking an embarrassing tumble from first to ninth is Nokia, with a 6.7. Greenpeace slapped Nokia with a penalty for corporate misbehavior on its recycling practices. Motorola also fell dramatically, from ninth place to fourteenth, also getting that misbehavior penalty. The company also has yet to announce a schedule for phasing out brominated flame retardants and PVCs from its entire product line. Apple edged up from eleventh to tenth after announcing that all new iMacs and many iPods are being sold with casings free of brominated flame retardants and that internal cables are PVC-free. And then thereâ''s Nintendo. Nintendo scored zero on every criteria. Greenpeace notes that this allows â''infinite room for future improvement.â''

Top to bottom, the lineup looks like this: Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Sony, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, LGE, Fujitsu-Siemens, Nokia, HP, Apple, Acer, Panasonic, Motorola, Sharp, Microsoft, Philips, and Nintendo. The detailed score charts and analyses are here.

Family of Famous Aviator Concede Defeat

Sadly, the wife of famed aviation innovator Steve Fossett has conceded that there is no longer any hope her husband will be found alive. Fossett disappeared on 3 September during a short flight in a single-engine plane in the skies above the rugged terrain of western Nevada. After an intensive land and air search mission failed to locate the 63-year-old aviator, federal and state authorities ended their recovery efforts in early October.

Today, in papers filed in Illinois' Cook County Circuit Court, Fossett's wife, Peggy, asked a judge to officially declare him deceased. In a news item from CNN, Mrs. Fossett is quoted as writing, "As difficult as it is for me to reach this conclusion, I no longer hold out any hope that Steve has survived."

The day after his disappearance, we posted a blog entry in this column on the search effort and on his career in aviation engineering.

Fossett came late to the study of aeronautics, but came on strong when he did turn his full attention to it. He started out in the business world, going to work after college for IBM and Deloitte and Touche. From there, he moved on to the financial sector, with positions at Merrill Lynch and Drexel Burnham. This led to his rise in prominence as a commodities trader. Eventually, he founded his own financial services firms, Marathon Securities and Lakota Trading. They made him a fortune.

He once said of his early days, "For the first five years of my business career, I was distracted by being in computer systems, and then I became interested in financial markets. That's where I thrived."

Money enabled the adventurous Fossett to begin a new career as a record-setting aviator and sailor. In 2002, he became the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. In 2005, he was the first person to fly non-stop around the planet in a fixed-wing aircraft. All told, he set 116 records in five different adventure sports, 60 of which still stand.

Earlier this year, Fossett was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. Receiving the honor, Fossett told the aeronautic enthusiasts, "I'm hoping you didn't give me this award because you think my career is complete, because I'm not done."

Sadly, that sentiment may have to serve as his final word. If so, it will point to a career that was thrilling to observe.

Death of Internet - film at 11 (2011, that is)

Is the Internet about to collapse? Or merely become as slow as molasses?

When headlines range all over the place, from concerned to apocalyptic, the obvious conclusion is that someone has the hype engine running in overdrive. The guilty parties here are Nemertes Research, who "predict that demand for bandwidth will outpace capacity by 2010," and the Internet Innovation Alliance, a shadowy group that co-funded the research.

Take a look at some of the headlines and judge for yourself:

"Internet Might Collapse in 2010" (Enews)

"Superhighway traffic jam could clog Internet" (Times of India)

"Video, interactivity could slow Web 'way' down by 2010" (Gannet/USA Today/Indianapolis Star)

The Chronicle of Higher Education struck a middle path with a slightly skeptical story, but an apocalyptic headline: "Back to Soup Cans and String?"

By contrast, using the same press release, the UK site, Monsters & Critics went completely over the top:

Study: Bandwidth consumption could cripple Internet

A new study shows that the Internet could slow to a crawl by 2010 if infrastructure investment is not boosted by $137 billion

Their story includes this particularly over-the-top quote:

"We must take the necessary steps to build out network capacity or potentially face internet gridlock that could wreak havoc on internet services," said Larry Irving, co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), which co-funded Nemertesâ'' report.

Broadband Reports rightly looks at the source and its motives.

As we've stated previously, most warnings of capacity armageddon come from traffic shaping companies looking to sell hardware, or industry lobbyists trying to shape policy through think tanks. In this case Nemertes's study was funded with help from the Internet Innovation Alliance, a group spearheaded by AT&T.

The IIA has been pushing the idea of a looming "exaflood" for some time, with the primary goal being industry deregulation. The argument being that if these companies don't get exactly what they want from lawmakers in Washington, the entire Internet collapses and we're back to using soup cans and string.

Sure enough, if any of the Apocalypse Now stories had actually glanced at the report, it would have seen what Nemertes actually predicted. (It's right there in the executive summary.)

Our findings indicate that although core fiber and switching/routing resources will scale nicely to support virtually any conceivable user demand, Internet access infrastructure, specifically in North America, will likely cease to be adequate for supporting demand within the next three to five years. We estimate the financial investment required by access providers to bridge the gap between demand and capacity ranges from $42 billion to $55 billion, or roughly 60%-70% more than service providers currently plan to invest.

In other words, the issue is the last-mile infrastructure, that is, the final DSL, cable, or wireless connection from an access provider's infrastructure to your home. Sure, more could be done. Verizon's fiber-to-the-home initiative, FiOS, has been slowed by Wall Street's concern that too much investment too quickly will drag down stock prices in the short term, no matter how essential the spending is to the company's long-term prospects. AT&T's even more strategy of fiber-to-the-curb, instead of the home, is predicated on the idea that it's a lot cheaper.

One key question is the extent to which wireless broadband is included in the study's calculations. After all, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T already have robust 3G cellular data networks. And Sprint and Clearwire are currently building a next-generation network using new mobile WiMax technology, based on the IEEE 802.16 standard.

As it turns out, Nemertes did consider wireless.

As can be seen, the broadband access capacity grows at an essentially linear rate over time. This curve, however, depends on two assumptions. The first is that world fiber to the home will be increasing over time. The second is that wireless devices will increasingly become a surrogate for fixed access technologies. While the number of mobile devices worldwide is known and the projected uptake can be surmised, the degree to which these devices will be used for data is uncertain. If the technology implicit in wireless devices continues to improve and data rates available to basic devices increases, it is possible that access line capacity could increase by several times on the tail end of the curve, thus inflecting the curve up or, at the very least, straightening it.

It's very likely that wireless broadband will continue to improve greatly over the next few years, and if so, largely solve whatever last-mile problems we will have. So, pace the IIA's scare-filled presentation and doomsday quotes, the study itself isn't very pessimistic at all. Of course, to peer past the IIA's smoke and fog, you'd have to actually go to the report and read it. It's right there, freely available, assuming your soup-can-and-string connection to the Internet is up to the task.

New CT Scanner Offers Enhanced Imaging

If, like me, you're scheduled to visit the radiologist soon for a CAT scan, you'll certainly want your provider using the latest diagnostic imaging equipment available. As of today, that would be the new Philips Brilliance iCT scanner.

Introduced yesterday at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) meeting in Chicago, the Brilliance iCT promises greater image quality and lower exposure to ionizing radiation, according to a statement from its maker, Royal Philips Electronics.

The Brilliance iCT is a computed tomography system that processes 256 "slices" (or x-ray image portions) at a time. Philips claims its new offering is so powerful that it can capture an image of the entire heart in just two beats, yet its radiological output is 80 percent lower than standard CT equipment on the market presently.

According to the company, the performance of the Brilliance iCT is made possible by enhanced x-ray tubes, detectors, and reconstruction design elements, as well as a faster x-ray gantry (housed in the big "donut" ring) that can rotate around a patient at four times a second. Moreover, the 3D images provided by the new machine can be shared for viewing from any personal computer in a secure health-care network.

"This scanner allows radiologists to produce high quality images and is also designed to reduce patients' exposure to x-rays," Steve Rusckowski, CEO of Philips Medical Systems, said at the introduction yesterday.

That sounds like good news to me. I've had enough radiation over the past few years.

Free Rice: playing games and feeding the world

rice80.gifMy husband and I spent $130 for a Franklin Pocket Prep SAT tutor, mostly for its vocabulary drills, hoping the gizmo aspect of it would encourage our 16-year-old to study for his upcoming SAT test..

A few weeks later another parent told me about Free Rice, a website with vocabulary drills. I jotted down the url to check out later, but it didnâ''t seem all that interesting, and I forgot about it.

Until this weekend, when I went to haul my three kids away from the computer for the zillionth time and encourage them to either do homework, practice their music, or go outside and play. I figured they were Instant Messaging friends or playing some twitch game at AddictingGames.com

I discovered that they were playing Free Rice. Not just the teen, but the 12-year-old and 9-year-old as well.

And I think itâ''s the most brilliant Web application ever written.

The premise is simple. Itâ''s SAT vocabulary drills, each screen brings up a word and four answers. It was built by John Breen, a computer programmer from Indiana, to help his son study for the SAT, and launched last month. Itâ''s the kind of computer software people used to call drill and kill.

Hereâ''s where it gets brilliant. Every time the player gets a word right, ten grains of rice appear in a virtual bowl. It takes 100 grains to fill the bowl, 1000 grains to get a little pile of rice on the left hand side of the screen. The graphic also includes a running tally of the total amount of rice.

But this is not simply a way of keeping score. Free Rice, which is advertiser supported (big advertisers, like Coca Cola, American Express, and Apple), actually donates the rice, well, money to buy the rice, to the United Nationsâ'' World Food Program, nearly four million grains so far. (According to Wikipedia, it takes 20,000 grains of rice to feed an adult for a day.)

Schools today talk a lot about philanthropy and helping others, so this appeals to kids, big time. Add the philanthropic aspect to basic competition (my kids know exactly which of the three is ahead in this donation game), and even a simple vocabulary drill gets addictive.

And, instead of being annoyed about the computer time, parents, at least my husband and I, are thrilled.

Unfortunately, itâ''s too late to send the Franklin gizmo back.

The Enigma of Marketing Nanotechnology

In a recently released doctoral thesis (â''Nanotechnology and Nanolabeling â'' Essays on the Emergence of New Technological Fieldsâ'') from Nina Granqvist at the Helsinki School of Economics, it is argued that many companies that purport to be involved in nanotechnology are merely posers who really are not working at the nanoscale at all, or, if they are, generate only a small proportion of their revenue from the nanotechnologies that they have commercialized.

There are surely companies that have promoted their products on rather dubious evidence that there is much â''nanotechnologyâ'' to be found in them. And sometimes, that strategy has even backfired.

One need only turn to the brouhaha over Magic Nano last year in which a bathroom cleaning product that was marketed as â''Nanoâ'' started to cause respiratory problems in its users. This caused many to start using it as an example of how dangerous nanotechnology is, until it started to become clear that the product didnâ''t really contain any nanoparticles.

Whatâ''s puzzling is with a virtual industry out there waiting to pounce on any example of how nanotechnology is going to harm us, why anyone would want to market their companies with nanotechnology.

One could say that there is a trend to downplay nanotechnology rather than emphasize it. The food and cosmetic industries are good examples of those that are loathe at this point to even talk about nanotechnology never mind use it as a marketing tool.

With the exception of perhaps HPâ''s â''n is for nanotechnologyâ'' ad campaign launched back in 2003, which contained the classic â''making possible cell phones so small that an ant could use itâ'', itâ''s difficult for me to recall much mass marketing of nanotech.

I am sure there is some marketing science out there that can establish just how much pull you can get from emphasizing the science behind your product, but nanotechnologyâ'¿? Hmmhâ'¿that seems a risky marketing ploy.

Rockefeller Christmas Tree Gets a Little Greener

In a first, the famous Christmas Tree adorning the main promenade at Rockefeller Center in New York City will be trimmed with energy-efficient light-emitting diodes in place of incandescent bulbs for the holiday season.

Far and away the most popular tourist attraction in New York this time of the year, the current tree, an 84-foot-tall Norway spruce, will be strung with some 30 000 multicolored LEDs stretched over five miles of wire, according to an item from the Associated Press.

The city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said the switchover to the cooler LEDs should inspire holiday goers to think about ways they, too, could make choices in their own lives to reduce energy consumption.

"Now they will see an example of green leadership which may inspire them to make greener choices in their own lives," Bloomberg said Tuesday.

Bloomberg has been at the forefront of urban leaders championing environmentally friendly, or "green," technologies for public use in recent years (for example, please see our blog entry "New York's Famous Yellow Cabs Go Green" from last May).

According to the AP, the new tree's lighting display will reduce its energy needs from about 3500 to 1300 kilowatt hours per day (of 18 hours) over its 40-day installation. Scheduled for its official lighting ceremony next Wednesday (an event that draws thousands), the tree is a New York tradition that dates back to 1931, when Depression-era construction workers erecting the 30 Rockefeller Center skyscraper decided to decorate a tall tree of their own.

"We'll all be dreaming this year, instead of a white Christmas, a green Christmas," Bloomberg said at the announcement, according to a report in today's New York Daily News.

After its holiday service, the spruce from Shelton, Conn., will be sawed into doors to be used in new homes built by Habitat for Humanity. "Everybody [is] going to have a Christmas tree gateway to their home," said Tom Madden, a managing director of the firm that operates Rockefeller Center, Tishman Speyer Realty.

It's another symbol of our changing times -- on a good occasion to make a symbolic change. Happy holidays.

Forward Bias: Skunkworks X-Plane on YouTube

November 21, 2007

This Week's Theme: Leaked Document

Earlier this month, official footage of Lockheed Martin's P-791 X-plane (X-blimp, really) mysteriously ended up on YouTube, where many commenters noted the X-Blimp's resemblance to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

But P-791 is not the only game in town. The UK's SkyCat, Canada's Voyager, and Germany's CargoLifter are all hoping to replace the Hindenburg image in the collective imagination with something friendlier and less on fire. But why a hybrid blimp?

1. Airships can carry heavy loads with less fuel.

2. Slow takeoff and landing speeds allow liftoff from short, unprepared strips.

3. Airships can save the arctic.

4. They can enhance the European commuting experience.

5. 60,000 feet up is the ideal location for stationary airborne surveillance.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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