Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Could the Earth Collide with Mars?

In an intriguing paper in the 11 June Nature, Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau of the Paris Observatory report on their large-scale computer simulation, which explored orbital interactions among the nine planets in our solar system. Over timescales of billions of years, the accumulation of slight variations in the orbits very occasionally led to planetary disaster. Of the 2501 scenarios they ran, for instance, Earth collided with Mars 29 times.

So, OK, that would be bad. But look at it this way: it wouldn't happen for at least 3 billion years, and it sure would shorten the travel time to Mars.

You'll need a subscription to view the full paper, but Sid Perkins has a good summary at Science News.

FDA Has It All Figured Out When It Comes to Nanotechnology

Sometimes it's hard to figure out who is more mixed up in the EHS/nanotechnology debate. On the one hand you have government underestimating the problem and then on the other you have NGOs hyping the issue beyond all recognition.

Both sides seem determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The latest example we have in this back and forth is Dr. Annette McCarthy of the FDA proclaiming last week to an assembly of food industry delegates at the IFT International Food Nanoscience Conference in Anaheim,  CA that: “We believe that the regulatory authority is sufficient to address nanotechnology but there are further questions we need to address.”

I helped to organize a conference three years ago on the impact of nanotechnologies in the food industry and there was an FDA spokesperson at that event as well. Their line of argument was almost identical to Dr. McCarthy's and even three years ago this attitude inspired frustrated sighs.

It's not clear what Dr. McCarthy was referring to specifically when she mentioned "further questions we need to address." But it's not clear how the current regulatory authority is sufficient but at the same time there are further questions that need to be addressed.

Have we entirely lost the capability of the diplomatic hedge? Just say, we're looking at the issue or some other vague and non-committal bit to keep at bay those who are just waiting to pounce on this kind bureaucratic arrogance as evidence of the need for a complete moratorium on nanotechnology.

New Element to Join Periodic Table, Seeks Official Name

Scientists in Germany have revealed the discovery of a new superheavy chemical element that they are tentatively calling ununbium, until an official body approves a permanent name.

Physicists at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, in Darmstadt, announced yesterday that they had produced an element with the atomic number 112 in experiments going back many years.

Although their research first produced atoms of element 112, by their reckoning, in 1996, it would take years for their results to be confirmed by fellow physicists in Japan and other nations. That confirmation culminated this week in a letter from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) that recognized the discovery of a new element. By right of discovery, the Helmholtz Center team, led by principal investigator Sigurd Hofmann, will have the privilege of naming the new element, which they are calling ununbium for now, after the Latin word for 112. 

According to the GSI Helmholtz Center, Hofmann's team produced atoms of ununbium by shooting zinc ions through a 120-meter-long particle accelerator at a lead target. Smashing the two stable elements together fused some of their nuclei for very brief periods of time, but long enough to form atoms with their combined atomic numbers, or the number of protons in a nucleus, of zinc with 30 and lead with 82. The new element is so radioactively unstable, however, that it disintegrates quickly into charged particles and lighter atoms.

The officially confirmed discovery marks the sixth time over the last 28 years that scientists at the GSI Helmholtz Center have created new elements in their laboratories: element 107 is called bohrium, element 108 hassium, element 109 meitnerium, element 110 darmstadtium, and element 111 roentgenium.

"We are delighted that now the sixth element -- and thus all of the elements discovered at GSI during the past 30 years -- has been officially recognized," Hofmann said yesterday. "During the next few weeks, the scientists of the discovering team will deliberate on a name for the new element."

Dispatches from the Nanotechnology Frontier

Addressing the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) issues surrounding nanotechnology has become critical for the future development of nanotechnologies across a number of application fields.


But in order to address these issues it is necessary to set standards for nomenclature, experimentation and microscopy, just to name a few.


This week out in Seattle, WA, a meeting of the ISO TC 229 (nanotechnologies) group is on going and its aim is to establish standards in these areas.


This ISO group is nothing new, it's been around a while. So to be honest, I am not sure where this meeting stands in its progress towards developing standards.


But we do have a new insight into the process as Skip Rung, President and Executive Director of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), is sending back dispatches from the meetings to Nanotech-Now.


Based on his first dispatch I expect that it will be some time before we have anything approaching a comprehensive set of standards for nanotechnologies. But I'll be reading the posts, just in case.

George 'Macaca' Allen Joins Nanotox Board of Directors

George Allen, the former Governor and Senator from Virginia, has had to have committed one of the more egregious examples of foot-in-mouth disease seen on the campaign trail in some time.

By using a derogatory racial epithet for a campaign worker from his opponent's campaign, he helped turn the tide against him in the campaign for Senate.

But huge political blunders don't necessarily disqualify you from being offered all sorts of positions, like serving on a board of directors.

Nanotox based in Austin, TX is not perturbed by Allen's recent history and have appointed the former politician to serve on their board of directors. Nanotox markets itself as offering complete risk assessment exclusively for nanoparticles.

There's little doubt this whole EHS/nanotechnology issue is going to become a huge political issue and some contractors are likely to win lucrative contracts in sorting it all out. It's important to have powerful political allies under those circumstances even if their most recent political role ended under less than ideal circumstances.

Low-Cost Low-Power Screen from Dream Jobber Jepsen

Mary Lou Jepsen, profiled in IEEE Spectrum’s 2007 special report on dream jobs for engineers, designed the screen for the little green XO computer intended to blanket the world as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The OLPC effort didn’t quite play out as exactly as planned, though production began recently. (Earlier this year the organization cut half its staff and announced a change in strategy to open source hardware.)

But that wasn’t the fault of Jepsen’s screen. The screen, reviewers agreed, was revolutionary. Oh, sure, it could have been bigger, the resolution in color mode could have been better, but its low power consumption, visibility in bright light, and dual color and black and white modes were standouts.

Jepsen has a for-profit company now, Pixel Qi, a fabless designer of screens that just completed its first round of funding in March. Pixel Qi has announced that its low-cost low-power screen technology will be shipping this fall as part of e-book readers and netbooks, a sort of e-paper capable of video as well as static images. This generation of the technology will be bigger—10-inches, compared with the OLPC’s 7.5-inch screen—and better. Meanwhile, the company says it is working on a version capable of HDTV resolution.

I can’t wait to see it.

Photo: Pixel Qi (left) vs. Kindle
Credit: Pixel Qi


Twitter Gets a Conference All Its Own

Is there any better sign of the times than the fact that Jeff Pulver’s got a Twitter conference next week?

 Pulver is probably best known for his Voice on the Net (VON) conferences. He rode the voice-over-IP wagon long and hard, making a bundle along the way by playing a key role in the early days of Vonage, but he’s had other cool conferences as well, such as one in November 2005 he called “Peripheral Visionaries,” an “IP-Based Communications Summit” that brought together “technologists, innovators, entrepreneurs, analysts, academics and visionaries.”

At the time, Susan Crawford blogged about it under the heading “Very timely Pulver conference.” Crawford herself is a shining star and something of a zeitgeist figure—she’s the University of Michigan law professor who recently became Obama’s Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. She was an ICANN director for four years, and I notice on Wikipedia that she’s also on the National Economic Council.

Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference,” as he calls it, is right here in Nework City, 16-17 June. I haven’t heard of most of the speakers, but that was true of the early VON conferences as well. One of those resulted in one of my favorite articles, Edholm's Law of Bandwidth, according to which telecommunications data rates are as predictable as Moore's Law.

Anyway, there are plenty of other signs of the Twitter Era. One of the more undercover—or should I say under-the-covers?—indications is the news that Twitter is all the rage in the adult entertainment community. In an article (“Life is Tweet”) that doesn’t seem to be online, Gia Jordan reports in the trade magazine AVN that “the porn industry is twittering—networking and marketing on the popular social networking site,” 

Over 1000 [Twitter users] are porn stars and adult industry professionals. They chat and network up to 50 times a day—not really to fans, but with each other. The popularity of Twitter among the industry has exceeded MySpace and Facebook due to its easy interface and instant gratification. “You have just a few lines. The simplicity lends itself to really seeing who someone is. There’s no time to embellish your identity with page designing, music, and glittery gifs,” explains adult performer/directot Kimberly Kane, who made her first tweet—meaning Twitter post—after her Live In My Secrets premiere party. A few weeks later, she tweeted a second time and discovered that she had gathered 100 followers.

Not surprisingly, the article title “Life Is Tweet” shows up several times on Google, the absent AVN article notwithstanding. The Guardian’s ho-hum take Life is tweet: How the Twitter family infiltrated our cultural world is typical—the lead concerns Twitter marriage proposals (yawn). The subhead is “The hottest microblogging service, Twitter, is changing the way TV, literature and media operate,” yet somehow it missed the way Twitter is changing the way the porn industry operates.

Is Twitter really changing the way anything operates? Maybe a little, but it’s not Napster, Flickr, or Facebook, three social networks that really have changed people’s daily lives. It’s not as significant as social recommendations, a phenomenon of lasting value that we’ve written about twice so far, in the abstract (<a People Who Read This Article Also Read...) and specifically about Netflix’s The Million Dollar Programming Prize).

Don’t get me wrong—microblogging is here to stay, and the ability to microblog on the go is a big deal too. But combining the Web and text messaging seems more kludgy than visionary. As the Internet cloud gets more robust, and phones become ever-more capable, we’ll be able to do this far more straightforwardly. I hope, though, we don’t lose the 140-character limitation along the way. Like many programming and artistic constraints, Twitter has turned an obstacle into a virtue. When it comes to “What are you doing right now?” less is definitely more.

For Better or for Worse

Today's the day for comments to be filed with the FCC on the National Broadband Plan Congress has asked the agency to prepare, and some of them are doozies. You can search them via the FCC's on-line system, entering 09-51 as the docket number. Some of the critical questions:

1. What's the goal and how do we measure it?

Cisco has some interesting comments to the effect that Quality of Service is as important as raw capacity. Sensible, even if you aren't in the video conferencing system. Others suggest a hard number, and others still a level of improvement year-over-year.

2. What about the non-discrimination rule?

This question raises the conflict between Open Access and restrictions on network management. If you believe that the primary rationale for the Plan is to promote innovation in the application space, it follows that you need some network innovation support to handle a diverse mix of QoS-dependent and non-dependent application, so the non-discrimination rule proposed by some activists is counter-productive.

3. Who owns the network?

Nobody really wants any level of government to own and control the Internet, except for activists who believe the phone companies to be so heinous in light of their history in the old monopoly days that they can't be trusted to get any of it right. As long as the Internet is a principal means of criticizing government action, I can't see turning it over to the except as as last resort. This is primarily an issue for Muni Fiber projects.

4. Where does the US rank in the world?

Not as high as we'd like, of course, but this is largely a matter of perspective. Highly urban nations like Iceland and Sweden have more broadband users per capita, but that's probably a matter of climate, culture, and options for entertainment. CTIA - The Wireless Association points out that the US is number 1 in wireless phone minutes (lowest cost per minute and most minutes per month) and 3G penetration. It appears that telecom has been investing more heavily in wireless than in fiber. 

5. What does the future hold in the way of challenges?

The Internet doesn't actually hold the promise of continuous improvement as it's currently structured, due to the problems we're going to see in edge routers due to route proliferation: there are currently some 280,000 Internet routes for edge routers to remember, but expect that to increase to the millions in the next few years. Moore's Law isn't going to bail us out forever, so we need to get to work on a scalable routing protocol.

Here are some links:



Richard Bennett (me)

Free Press



Innovation Policy Institute


Media Access Project



Will A Monstrous Antenna Solve My DTV Reception Problem?

This time last year, in anticipation of what was then going to be a 17 February 2009 analog television shutdown, I installed two converter boxes, expecting that would take care of my household’s digital transition. I turned them on, scanned for channels, and got—absolutely nothing.

Fortunately, as a Spectrum editor, I’ve got all sorts of television experts in my address book. I called a few, and they quickly diagnosed my problem--the antenna on my roof was VHF-only, whereas the vast majority of digital TV stations are broadcast on UHF frequencies (yes, I did feel like an idiot). I sent my husband up onto the steep roof of our two-story house (be careful, honey) to replace the ancient VHF antenna with a new UHF antenna. I turned on the TV, scanned for channels, and got lots of foreign language stations, a bunch of kid channels (to my 10- year-old’s delight), but little or no reception of the primary television networks, broadcasting from San Francisco’s Sutro Tower.

I called my experts again and discovered that there are likely  contributing to my horrendous reception—too many splitters in the cables that run from my rooftop antenna through my house; trees, buildings, and hills wreaking havoc with the signal; and the fact that the digital transmitters are broadcasting from a temporary, suboptimal position and at reduced power until sometime after the transition are the most likely subjects.

I’m not going to rewire the house—the cabling was dropped into the walls during a remodel many years ago. I can’t do much about the geography, or speed up the renovation of Sutro Tower. I was discouraged, to say the least. But then the FCC postponed analog shutdown until 12 June; so I unplugged the converter boxes and went back to watching analog.

But once again, analog shutdown is imminent. And I refuse to give up and call the cable guys.


Using the information in Spectrum’s February article, “Antennas for the New Airwaves”, and two websites— and, I concluded that I needed the biggest, most powerful, VHF and UHF combination antenna I could find and afford. VHF and UHF because, it turns out that in the Bay Area, ABC is going to continue to broadcast on a VHF channel. Big, because, although I’m less than 50 km from the transmitters and these giant antennas are really designed for reception about 100 km or more away, it seemed like I needed all the signal I could get.

I ordered a Winegard HD8200U Platinum Series High Definition VHF/UHF TV Antenna from Amazon ($158.69), and my husband and I spent a recent weekend getting it on the roof. It was a two-day process—on Saturday afternoon, we assembled the monster in the back yard. Even though we had read the specs and knew the dimensions—4.3 meters by 2.8 meters—we were shocked by just how big it truly was. The instructions were cryptic at best; assembly took us a long time and involved several debates over what went where; some parts were hard to fit together; at some point assembly involved my bracing one part while my husband banged the other into place with a mallet. (This meant, of course, if this didn’t solve our problem we weren’t going to be able to exchange the antenna for a different one.)

On Sunday, my husband and my 17-year-old son went up on the roof (this monster was too big for one person to handle), me on the ground, biting my nails and yelling at my son to stay away from the edge of the roof. With the antenna solidly strapped to the chimney and them safely back on the ground, I went inside to scan for channels.

We lost the kid channel, but picked up a sports channel; my 10-year-old figures that’s a fair trade. We are now getting two networks—NBC and, most of the time, ABC. We are not getting CBS, the independent KRON (which I watch frequently for local news), or FOX. The latter could lead to family strife during American Idol season.

But it turns out that this is not the end of the story. We might just get these channels eventually without installing yet another antenna. Because the digital transition is not a one-day thing.

In the San Francisco Bay area, six stations went ahead and ended analog broadcasting on 17 February, the original shutdown date.

One June 12, most of the remaining stations will shutdown analog broadcasting sometime between 6 pm and midnight; a few will do it earlier that day, three will keep it going as what is called a Nightlight service, that is, a channel available to provide emergency information to folks who didn’t make the transition.

Sometime in the next day or so, ten stations will change the frequencies on which they transmit their digital signals, so anyone trying to watch digital TV will have to keep rescanning for new channels, and may find that they are receiving a different set of channels than they were just moments ago (I’m hoping for a bigger set). One station will actually move its transmitter from one town to another.

Then, sometime in the fall, 11 channels broadcasting out of San Francisco, including most of the networks, will get new, more powerful, and higher antennas. No one knows exactly when this will happen. The good news is that it will likely make my reception a lot better. The bad news is that, while the antenna work is being done, some of the stations will be temporarily broadcasting on even lower power antennas than they are today.

Whew. That’s my transition tale update for now. And I have to look back and laugh when I think about how naïve I was this time last year, when I thought all I needed to do was install a converter box.

Designing a Nanotech Material: It Takes a Long Time

I received some rather pointed criticism for my guest  editorial a couple of years back Material by Design: Future Science or Science Fiction? If the following video is any indication my "radical conservatism" may not have been misplaced.

In my editorial I suggested that the prospect of being able to design a material for a specific purpose is a rather long way off and that we are stuck with the 'hit or miss' iterative process that we use today for the foreseeable future.

This video shows that even the iterative process of trying to develop a material that can detect benzene can be a time consuming process and will take sudden and unexpected turns



Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More