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South Florida Blackout: Are More Ahead?

In the wake of the power outages that swept South Florida this afternoon, the usual questions are sure to raise their heads: had Florida Power & Light (FPL) done all it could to enhance and maintain infrastructure in the affected region, with some 6 million inhabitants and perhaps 680,000 affected customers? Was it alert and on top of events today, which was almost record-hot, with summer-like air conditioning loads? Or was it like the sleepy and controversial Ohio utility in whose operating region the great Northeast-Midwest blackout of August 2003 began? Are blackouts inevitable?

An IEEE Spectrum article published in June 2000 drew attention to a crisis in U.S. power systems: everywhere in the country grids were thin-stretched, with additions to transmission and generation lagging behind growth in electricity demand, and with the personnel needed to design and maintain power systems in ever-shorter supply. Since then, some regions have been much more successful than others in building out their power systems and improving their management: New England, for example, has a highly regarded independent system operator, which has successfully overcome political and community obstacles to expand the region's transmission system.

FP&L reports that the South Florida blackout began with troubles at an electricity distribution substation at a nuclear power plant, and that the nuclear reactors shut down, either right before the outage or in response to it. When troubles develop in a the grid, electricity turbines in generating plants spontaneously speed up in an effort to maintain voltage and frequency levels; they can burn out unless they shut themselves down to protect themselves.

Since power systems can easily collapse in reaction to small initiating causes, some argue that large blackouts are mathematically inevitable, that only their scope and consequences can be mitigated. Indignantly, power system specialists reject the counsels of despair. Bloviating blogsters are supposed to know all the answers, but this one is an agnostic.

How would it be like to live on Mars? Two MIT students find out - in Utah

Two MIT students are living inside a Mars simulator in Utah, pretending they are on Mars. To go outside their simulator where they are spending a two-week-long "mission," they get into spacesuits and exit via an airlock.

They introduce a 20-minute delay into any email they send and receive, as if the email were actually traveling as radio waves from Mars.

Zahra Khan and Phillip Cunio, two graduate students from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, began their stay at the Mars Society's Desert Research Station, near Hanksville, Utah, on Sunday, Feb. 17.

Their goal: to understand the technological and psychological issues that

a crew on Mars will someday face.

Anyone interested in the project can see the team in action via a set of web cams at

Cunio is also blogging about his experiences at

Large Blackout Strikes Southern Florida

A little after 1:00 pm EST today, much of southern Florida lost electricity. CNN began reporting shortly afterward that the blackout affected a region stretching from Daytona in the north to the Florida Keys in the south, impacting the lives of millions of people. The TV news network said that a mix of eight regular and nuclear power plants were affected by the outage.

The blackout has knocked out communications, traffic lights, rail lines, and other vital infrastructure components. Miami International Airport lost power for about a half hour before backup resources kicked in.

Det. Robert Williams, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade County, told CNN, "It has been raining pretty hard, but if that's the cause of the outage, I couldn't really tell you."

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told CNN that the incident had nothing to do with terrorism. "There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time," Laura Keehner said. "[W]e will continue to monitor the situation."

Early speculation pointed to an initial failure at Florida Power and Light's (FPL) Turkey Point nuclear facility near Homestead.

As of 2:30 pm, FPL said that some systems were beginning to come back on line.

MIT's Lunar Telescopes

NASA announced last week that it will fund MIT to build an array of hundreds of radio telescopes over a 2-kilometer stretch of the far side of the moon. The telescopes will probe the "earliest formation of the basic structures of the universe,â'' according to MIT. But many such ambitious projects have started off strong, only to end in a whimper. How likely is this one to get off the ground?

That depends on how important the research is perceived to be. The moon telescope, called the Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology (LARC) project, will pick up very-low-frequency radio emissions, with which scientists can measure cosmic background radiation and investigate to a period known as â''the Dark Agesâ'' of the universe, which extends from the Big Bang to a billion years out (12.6 billion years ago, according to current estimates of the age of the universe).


Physics professor Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science, stands behind a prototype of a radio telescope array. A team she leads has been chosen by NASA to develop plans for such an array on the far side of the moon.

Photo credit: Donna Coveney/MIT.

"The more we learn about the microwave background, the better we understand cosmology," says Johns Hopkins University astronomy and astrophysics professor Richard Conn Henry. "Very important indeed." But Henry is not convinced that this project will be built in his lifetime. He has seen many such ambitious NASA projects fail.

Astronomers have long been eager to get to the dark side of the moonâ''because it is permanently turned away from earth, itâ''s the only place near us where nothing interferes with those very low frequency radio emissions.

Space telescopes can't do it because all our radio and television transmissions drown out the faint noise weâ''re looking for. â''Radio telescopes in orbit are terrible," says Henry. "They pick up noise from all over the earth." He says that the radio silence from the far side of the moon would give researchers better insight than even the WMAP Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation map. (The reason WMAP was so clean was that it was at L2 and pointed away from earth.)

For earth-based telescopes, the ionosphere also gets in the way. The far side of the moon is the only place anywhere near our orbit that is protected by its constant about-face. Henry was also a co-investigator on the Apollo 17 UV experiment in 1972, and he says,"the Radio experiment people said it was amazing how quiet it got on the other side of the moon."

But will it be built? Henry intimates that the plan is overly ambitious, and funding will be too scarce. He has seen many such expensive NASA projects peter out and die. The first step (laying out the blueprints for the mission) is being funded to the tune of $500,000 divided between MIT and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Team leader and MIT physics professor Jacqueline Hewitt (pictured) says this array of spider-like telescopes will be one of the easiest to build. (And because there are so many, the accidental failure of a few will not be devastating.)

If NASA eventually chooses MIT's LARC, construction is slated to begin after 2025 (cost estimates for the final project are at about $1 billion).

More Blu-Ray Blues?

Last week, the analysts at iSuppli, a market research firm in southern California, asked the question: "Toshiba's HD-DVD Exit: a Pyrrhic Victory for Blu-ray?" They went on to say this:

However, after years of a standards war, the major question for Sony Corp. and the Blu-ray camp is whether a physical format for high-definition still has any relevance to consumers in this era of Internet-delivered movies and video on demand.

"The demise of HD-DVD will reduce consumer confusion, since everyone will talk about a single next-generation DVD player and the benefits of owning such a player," said David Carnevale, vice president of multimedia content and services at iSuppli Corp. "But the biggest question of them all now is: Do consumers even care?"

Here at Spectrum, we try to control our fits of self-congratulation, but it's hard not to notice that we made the very same prediction a month ago, in a radio segment that aired on the public radio show, Here and Now. If you subscribe to Spectrum Radio, a copy is already on your iPod. If not, the podcast, "No More Disks?" is downloadable here. (If you'd like to subscribe, the RSS feed is here.)

Our reasoning was pretty much the same as iSuppli's. Theirs went like this:

During the years while the DVD war raged, online services - from iTunes, Amazon and others - have gained traction and now offer numerous movie titles, television programs and other content, all in a digital format downloaded directly to a consumerâ''s PC or portable device and now, on their television with products like Apple TV and Sonyâ''s Bravia Internet Link.

This begs the question: Do consumers even want or need a physical copy of their movies or TV programs anymore?

Our podcast concluded on a similar note:

So, do we really need to trudge out to Blockbuster, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart for a disk? Or wait for the now-familiar red envelope from Netflix? A lot of companies, including Apple and Netflix itself, are betting no. Sony and the studios hope they're wrong. But my bet is they're not.

iSuppli also looked at Blu-Ray's current high price, which isn't about to plummet now that it has the market to itself.

Blu-ray DVD players now sell for about $400. In contrast, a decent standard-definition player is priced at about $60Ë'a huge difference for Blu-ray to overcome. Furthermore, upconverter DVD players, which translate standard-definition DVD content to 720p resolution, are becoming commonplace. With these players priced at about $100, cost is likely to be an area where Blu-ray will continue to struggle.

It's not as if, however, no Blu-Ray drives are going to be sold, and iSuppli had some interesting numbers along those lines.

iSuppli's present forecast, developed before the news from Toshiba, calls for worldwide blue-laser DVD player shipments, i.e. Blu-Ray and HD DVD, to rise to 45.4 million units in 2011, up from 6.6 million in 2008. This figure excludes PCs and game consoles.

Shipments of blue-laser recorders will rise to 6.6 million units in 2011, up from 500,000 in 2008. However, the total of both players and recorders in 2011 will fall far short of the peak shipments of the older-generation red-laser players and recorders, which amounted to 156 million units in 2006.

My own prediction is that while the transitions from analog to digital television and from standard- to high-definition are logically distinct, the first is going to inspire a lot of the second. So I think we'll see a lot more Blu-Ray players sold in calendar 2009. They'll never be as cheap, or ubiquitous, as standard DVD players are today. But that's okay. DVD was arguably the fastest-selling consumer electronics category of all time.

By the way, it can't keep up, relying as it does on early adopters, but according to Displaysearch, another market research firm, the high-def DVD market has, to date, grown even faster.

To paraphrase Margo Channing in All About Eve - which, by the way, is already available in high-definition - fasten your couch's seatbelt, the high-definition video market is going to be a bumpy ride.

Spectrum editor is motion captured and turned into a guy at Game Developers Conference

I thought I was in my office yesterday, working on articles for upcoming Spectrum issues. Instead, I apparently was at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where I was being featured at the Mova booth.

â''Lots of journalists recognized you,â'' Mova founder Steve Perlman told me later.

I guess thatâ''s a good thing. Except apparently instead of being my normal short, female self, I was a big, bald guy.

Let me explain.

Last year, around this time, I was editing an article by Eric Pavey of Electronic Arts on advances in computer graphics that are leading to realistic digital humans. In particular, Pavey talked about techniques for translating facial movements into digital images that could then be manipulated. I decided to get myself â''capturedâ'' by a new system still under development, Contour, from Mova, a company incubated by Perlmanâ''s Rearden Companies. It was a fascinating process, involving banks of cameras, phosphorescent paint, and a director with a clapboard. I felt like a star, and wrote about it.

And then promptly forgot about it. Mova, however, saved the digital me, and used it to show off its new â''retargetingâ'' tool at the Game Developerâ''s Conference.

Retargeting allows one actorâ''s performance to drive another actorâ''s. In this demo (above), Contour took my original performance (left), made it into a digital mesh (right), and then took a few images of an actor named David. The technicians aligned Davidâ''s face with mine, and then the Contour system used the sequence of motions in my digital mesh to move the image of Davidâ''s face. The movements of my gaze, recorded by an eye tracking tool, directed Davidâ''s eye motion. The results are distinctly odd, as you can see. Thatâ''s my voice, those are my expressions, but that sure isnâ''t me.

What's the point? Well, suppose a movie director wanted to add a new scene long after shooting stopped and the lead actor had moved on to other projects and was not available. The director could use another actor's motion, and the lead actor's image. Or, more commonly, in translating a movie to a videogame, game developers would be able to use realistic digital facsimiles of the original actors, but would not need those actors to record entire motion sequences.

Perlman still canâ''t say exactly when Contour-generated faces will hit the big screen; heâ''s at the mercy of movie company nondisclosures. But he says heâ''s working with a number of major studios and A-list actors, and the results will likely premiere this year, in both movies and videogames.

IBM Measures Force Needed to Move Individual Atoms

IBM, in its long research history of both developing the Atomic Force Microscope, and Don Eigler using an AFM to move atoms around to form "IBM", has used the AFM again to measure the precise force needed to move individual atoms.

The IBM researchers collaborated with the University of Regensburg in Germany on this work, and its results are expected to help inform the future designing of atomic-scale devices, such as computer chips and storage devices.

If the elapsing of twenty years from the time Eigler first moved the atoms around with an AFM to now determining exactly how much force it required is any indication of when we will see further breakthroughs, it would probably be better to count on seeing CMOS chips for the foreseeable future.

Google Moon!

Today the X PRIZE Foundation and Google announced the first ten teams in the race for the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, a race to put a robot on the moon.

X PRIZE and Google announced the competition last September. The goal: to land the first private robotic mission on the moon. The robot has to roam around the surface for at least 500 meters and send video, images and data back to Earth. Google will pay $20 million to the first team that can do all that. Second place is worth $5 million.

The first team, called Team Astrobotic, wins the Sally Adee X PRIZE for coolest name. The robot impresarios at Carnegie Mellon University needed a space exploration expert, so they drafted the University of Arizona, and they needed someone with rocket-power experience, and who better than Raytheon Missile Systems. The spacecraft will be assembled on UA's campus.

Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute specializes in autonomous navigation that works with stereo vision, laser and radar, enabling robots like Crusher to autonomously avoid obstacles and map unfamiliar terrain on the fly.

Out of Africa: finally, a malaria vaccine?

New business models are helping large pharmaceutical companies tackle diseases of the poor around the world, especially of sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the attention goes to the effort to build a vaccine for HIV, but since the recent scientific collapse of the most interesting vaccine candidate, hopes and attention have shifted to malaria.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a big pharma company, has the leading malaria vaccine candidate, called RTS,S, originally created in 1987 and coming to phase-3 trials (finally) in 2008. The candidate vaccine, while welcome, has only so far proved to be effective in protecting roughly 50% of people from malaria for at least 18 months. Because of the vaccine-candidates relatively weak protections, GSK plans to market RTS,S to children. Children tend to die more quickly and often from malaria than adults, who gain resistance over time and generally respond to existing treatments.

GSK is getting support from the Gates foundation (through both the Malaria Vaccine Initiative and Seattle-based PATH, a partnership to promote attacks on tropical diseases) to reduce the costs of gaining regulatory approval and finishing its scientific tests. The company hopes to negotiate "advance market committments," or contracts, with international donors who have pledged to foot the bill for rolling out a malaria vaccine in willing African countries.

GSK's field trials, likely to commence in about eight months, are expected to be done in Kenya, Tanzania (2 sites), Mozambique, Gabon, and Ghana (2 sites).

Aside from the health benefits that would come from an even a partially effective, the RTS,S vaccine, should it get market approval in the next 2-4 years, will mark a watershed in the pharmaceutical industry's approach to tropical diseases. The scientific benefits from field-testing the vaccine candidate in Africa -- at a cost running more than $100 million -- may result in improved capacity around the region to hold similarly-ambitious trials for other drugs.

Equally, the stakes are high. If GSK fails, radically-new scientific approaches may get attention, such as as the capsid-interruption approach to halting diseases promoted by Prosetta Corp. As many as 90 teams around the world are working on malaria vaccines.

Another notable trend is that of supplementing these development efforts with a renewed emphasis on behavioral adaptations to reduce malaria incidence, especially greater reliance on treated bed nets and on indoor spraying of DDT, an effective killer of mosquitoes that carry malaria. GSK itself supports these activities in different African countries in a recognition that science must be married to social changes in order to maximize outcomes in battles against disease.

Video Evidence Supports Belief Satellite Was Destroyed

The U.S. Defense Department today was circumspect in its description of the shoot-down of an ailing U.S. spy satellite yesterday. But a video from the Navy destroyer that took the shot shows the interceptor missile ascending and exploding, lending credence to the assumption that the strike was successful.

In a morning briefing at the Pentagon, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, reported the "breakup" of the de-orbiting satellite at 10:50 pm EST yesterday.

To illustrate the point, Gen. Cartwright ran the video above taken from the tracking system of the USS Lake Erie, which had fired the multi-stage SM-3 AEGIS missile at the crippled satellite, known as USA 193, over 150 statute miles above it.

He said the military is "very confident" that the missile hit the bus-size satellite and that it has a "a high degree of confidence" the exact target, the satellite's fuel tank containing a full complement of frozen hydrazine, was destroyed. He added that analysts are still studying the data and that the military was not yet ready to state that the dangerous rocket fuel was vaporized.

"But let me give you a sense of what we've got," Gen. Cartwright added. "We have a fireball, and given that there's no fuel, that would indicate that that's a hydrazine fire. We have a vapor cloud that formed. That, again, would be likely to be the hydrazine. We also have some spectral analysis from airborne platforms that indicate the presence of hydrazine after the intercept. So again, that would indicate to us that the hydrazine vented overboard in some quantity, and we're starting to see that in space."

He continued: "Any one of those as a stand-alone is not a smoking gun, so we're putting the pieces together. I would tell you that it's probably going to take us another 24 to 48 hours to get to a point where we are very comfortable with our analysis that we indeed breached the tank. The imagery that we have, the high-definition imagery that we have, indicates that we hit the spacecraft right in the area of the tank. So each of the pieces put together--we're pretty confident, but we're not standing there; I don't have a picture that shows you a tank."

Gen. Cartwright said the Pentagon will continue studying the debris field to come to a firm conclusion that the threat from the satellite has been completely eliminated.

Judging by what the images show, though, it looks as if this anti-satellite technology display by the U.S. was a complete success, at least militarily.

[See our Tech Talk entry from yesterday, After Shuttle Lands, U.S. Missile Knocks Out Spy Satellite, for more on the missile shoot-down.]


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