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Hysteria versus Reason in Assessing Nanotechnology Risk

The UK approach to examining and assessing the risk of nanomaterials seems to come from two polar opposites: overheated hysteria and chilly rationality.

In one corner, you have the British tabloid press ratcheting up the fear factor with Armageddon-like headlines like the one highlighted over at TNTLog that reads: â''Tiny but toxic: Nanoparticles with asbestos-like properties found in everyday goodsâ''.

In the other, you have venerable institutions like the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering trying to bring reasoned and researched recommendations to the powers that be.

Unfortunately, the UK is not alone in this approach as it represents more or less how the rest of the world seems to be addressing the matter. First, there is quiet, reasoned research that suggests government look at the associated risks of nanomaterials and how they might be ameliorated. Then the government ignores the recommendations since it canâ''t be bothered by anything that isnâ''t shouted at them by a mob. Finally, sooner or later, the mob begins shouting.

This little scenario is being played out right now in the UK, and it should serve as a lesson to us all. If governments ignore the scientists in shaping their regulations and guidelines, they will likely end up being forced to heed the screaming mob. The result will be far inferior regulations that will likely be unable to balance the need for public safety with needed innovation.

Innovation in the Auto Industry...with Nanotechnology?

With US taxpayers facing the prospect of bailing out the US auto industry, which has been described by more than a few as populated by visionless management and a business culture hostile to innovation, can nanotechnology be used to finally bring some much needed technological advances into its product lines?

The long-time nanotechnology blogger Howard Lovy at Nanobot presents some possibilities for how nanotechnology is fueling innovation in the auto industry. While it is good to have Mr. Lovy blogging again, and he is certainly someone who is uniquely qualified to write on both nanotechnology and the auto industry, I am hard pressed to extend his optimism for the automobile to the innovative sensibilities of Detroit automakers.

In the Nanobot piece, Mr. Lovy points to the continued investment by GE into the battery maker A123Systems, which â''uses nanotechnology to produce rechargeable lithium-ion batteries,â'' as another sign of â''nano powering the auto revolutionâ''.

The problem is that the examples he cites in the article involve GE (while quite a large multi-national, it is not an automaker), A123Systems, and the all electric Tesla, the product of one man with a vision. All these companies are quite different than Detroitâ''s big three automakers.

Unfortunately, if the US government provides another bailout (we can consider the $25 billion in loan guarantees already provided the equivalent of a bailout) to US automakers, we can likely count on the money NOT being spent on innovation but rather on ways to resist changing while staying in business.

A Tale of Three Rulings

The big news last month that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission opened up the so-called TV â''white spacesâ'' buried two other announcements that on any other day would have been big stories. Both were merger approvals — with what the agency euphemistically calls "conditions."

The first merger was Clearwireâ''s takeover of Sprintâ''s WiMax venture. The second allowed Verizonâ''s to swallow up Alltel's 13 million subscribers.

The Clearwire deal was straightforwardly and enthusiastically approved. The Verizon deal, making the fifth-largest carrier in the nation disappear, not so much.

The FCC consists of five Commissioners, whose terms run independently of presidential administrations. At the moment and for a while, Republicans hold a 3-2 majority, so the loyal opposition on the FCC is represented by Michael Copps, the senior of the two Democrat commissioners. Copps called the Clearwire transaction â''good newsâ''really good newsâ'' and said the new WiMAX network will

provide millions of Americans with an additional option in the market for high-speed fixed broadband accessâ''which is currently a duopoly or worse between cable and phone companies. The new network will also provide millions of Americans with a new option for mobile broadband Internet accessâ''also currently a duopoly or worse between incumbent providers. So this counts as very good news for American consumers.

We at IEEE Spectrum agree, having made the network one of our five winning projects of 2008 (see "Winner: Sprint's Broadband Gamble").

Copps wasnâ''t as enthusiastic about the Verizon-Alltel deal. The FCC required some divestitures in specific markets, but he noted that even so, the new network would be the largest in the U.S., not just in terms of subscribers (about 80 million) but terrain. â''Although Alltel is by far the smaller of the two carriers when it comes to customers, its network covers a staggering amount of rural territory.â''

The combined entity will have an enormous geographic footprint, and the combination of the two networks will substantially reduce consumer choice.

Todayâ''s merger is also seriously bad news for smaller carriers who rely on roamingâ''and their customers. The reason is that the new, merged network will be the only game in town when it comes to roaming in many regions of the country. Smaller carriers that rely on roaming contracts to provide nationwide service will see a critical partner eliminated in rural areas. This development may even put some smaller carriers out of businessâ''thus further consolidating the wireless marketplace. The creation of an ever more dominant carrier will also have ripple effects in many other parts of the wireless marketplaceâ''tipping the balance even more towards the network operator when it comes to dealing with handset manufacturers, content providers, application designers and the many other companies that will be forced to ask for â''permission to innovate.â''

The U.S. is huge, geographically, and the only way it can have four nationwide providers is with a variety of roaming agreements. When carriers use the same frequencies, the two CDMA carriers (Verizon and Sprint) or the two GSM carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile) can can cary each otherâ''s calls. In other cases, they rent out space on their towers for their competitorâ''s radios. Often, however, the tower owner is another company entirely, which provides the service or space. As Copps notes, in vast, stretches of the country, that company has been Alltel.

The FCC didnâ''t ignore this issue, but Copps declared himself disappointed in the final ruling.

The main conditions we secure today are a commitment by Verizon Wireless to extend existing roaming contracts for four years and to maintain Alltelâ''s existing GSM network â''indefinitely.â'' These provisions are better than nothingâ''and better than what was originally proposed when this item was circulatedâ''but I cannot say that they answer more than a portion of my concerns. And I am disappointed that discussions suggesting a seven year roaming commitment did not end successfully.

The Republican party prides itself as being â''business-friendly,â'' but that can mean different things at different times. Sometimes it involves making decisions that promote competition, and sometimes it promotes the interests of existing businesses at the expense of competition. The Democrats try to balance the same interests, of course, and the differences between the two parties are sometimes little more than a question of where to place the fulcrum.

The conflict between these two forms of being business-friendly often shows itself when there is a limited resource at issue, and in the 21st century, few resources are more limitedâ''and valuableâ''than radio frequencies.

And so, ultimately, the three FCC decisions are all parts of the same puzzleâ''creating more competition in the Clearwire case by helping a big business get bigger; reducing competition in the Verizon case by letting a big company be taken over by an already-huge one; and in the white space ruling, trying to increase the supply of the scarce resource so as to not have to choose between the two interests at all. Only time will tell if the FCC got the balance right. At stake lies the utility of our cellphonesâ''perhaps the most powerful technology for communicating ever invented.

Indian Space Probe Now Orbiting the Moon

In an historic first for the Indian space program, its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has entered orbit around the moon.

According to a report from the Press Trust of India today, the Chandrayaan has been inserted into a long, looping polar orbit of the moon that brings the spacecraft to as near as 200 kilometers of the lunar surface. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) indicated that all of the craft's systems were operating nominally. Additional burns of the Chandrayaan's thruster will bring it into increasingly closer orbits in the days ahead. These will bring the craft to its operational circular orbit from pole to pole of 100 km, from which it will conduct a string of scientific experiments (see video below).

One of the first tests Chandrayaan will conduct, according to ISRO, is the firing of its Moon Impact Probe onto the lunar crust to study techniques for a possible future landing.

"We will study Chandrayaan-1â''s final orbit of 100 km by 100 km above the moon for a day or two," Project Director M. Annadurai said in an article in the The Hindu newspaper online. "We will then release the Moon Impact Probe."

(Please see our previous posts on Chandrayaan-1 in this space here.)

Who is Hiring Technologists

It's ugly out there. The Dow continues to falter and everyone's digging in for a long recession. But some companies see silver in that cloud--lots of talent dropped in the street looking for a new home. Rafe Needleman over at CNET is doing everyone a huge favor by charting the companies that are hiring programmers and engineers in drips and droves.

Russian Submarine Suffers Nuclear Accident, Many Dead

A Russian submarine has suffered a fatal accident that has killed at least 20, according to a report from CNN.

First reports, including this article from the BBC, say no radiation leaks have been involved so far.

The BBC reported the following statement from Russian Pacific Fleet spokesman Igor Dygalo: "I declare with full responsibility that the reactor compartment on the nuclear-powered submarine is working normally and the radiation background is normal."

The CNN account notes that Russia's Nerpa, an Akula-class submarine, was engaged in a trial run near its harbor. The accident apparently resulted from a malfunction in the boat's fire-control system. There were 208 sailors and engineers aboard the vessel, according to the news. It sailed back to its shipyard port in Bolshoy Kamen, Primorye.

Russia's RIA Novosti news service said the trial took place in the Sea of Japan and that the new sub was due to be leased to the Indian navy.

[Update: 10 November: Monday's Moscow Times reports that the accident on the sub was probably caused by civilians aboard for its test run, who were apparently not equipped with emergency breathing gear. "I believe the civilians from the plant were likely to blame," said Konstantin Makiyenko, a defense industry analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. "They were in charge of the submarine at that moment."]

Beam Me Up

Regardless of what side you might have come down on with regard to this week's U.S. presidential election, there is one thing upon which we all can agree: the hologram that cable network CNN busted out during its election night coverage was the coolest thing on TV. Early in the evening, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who was anchoring the coverage from the network's New York City studios, wanted to bring in the perspective of political correspondent Jessica Yellin, who was at the huge Chicago lakefront rally being held for then Senator--and now President Elect--Barack Obama. Instead of picking up the feed from a standard TV camera, a holographic projection of the reporter, comprising feeds from 35 cameras, was beamed into the New York studio, making Yellin appear to be standing just a few feet from the Blitzer. Later in the evening, musician, who turned Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign theme into a song and video that helped rally the youth vote, was beamed in.

CNN explains how it pulled off Tuesday night's feat, which is being compared to a classic scene in the movie "Star Wars" where a hologram of the character Princess Leia is projected from a port on the droid R2-D2, in an article on its Web site. If you're like me, you can't wait for companies to introduce the technology that will allow consumers to beam themselves around the world the way we send our voices via wireless telephony.

Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis Proponents Respond to Spectrum Article

Proponents of the concept of the Singularity and molecular manufacturing continue to let their displeasure be known about Spectrumâ''s series of articles on the Singularity last June.

Apparently, Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing submitted a response to Spectrum regarding Professor Richard Jonesâ'' article â''Rupturing the Nanotech Raptureâ'', but it was not published because as Nanodot suggests â''Spectrum has chosen to publish only one of the responses it received on this topic.â''

Hopefully the links I have provided to the letter in this blog entry (contained within the web pages of Spectrum by the way) have righted this perceived wrong to some extent.

The response catalogues how all the obstacles Jones identified for the mechanical engineering approach to molecular manufacturing have been addressed, if not overcome. But it does so by first offering a straw-man argument against Jones by contending that he presented these as â''showstoppersâ''.

But perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Freitasâ'' and Merkleâ''s response is the contention there has been â''zeroâ'' research in the field of mechanosynthesis over the last 15 years because of a lack of funding. This is proposed at the end of the letter to counter Jones, who apparently contends that there had been 15 years of â''intense researchâ'' on diamondoid nanomachinery.

This point is troubling because they appear to be so intent at unraveling Jonesâ'' argument that they are willing to discount the last 15 years of their lives and the thick tomes they have published arguing for diamondoid mechanosynthesis during that time.

I think it may come as a blow to the unwavering proponents of molecular manufacturing that their heroes have not been actually performing research into the field, but merely publishing speculative papersâ''dare we say engaging in â''hobby pursuitsâ''.

Letâ''s hope the funded research that Freitas and Merkle cite will look back at itself in 15 years with a little higher self-regard.

<i>Time</i> Magazine Picks the Top 50 Inventions of the Year

The editors at Time have gazed at the world of high-tech and picked the cream of the crop to appear this year. In its annual Best Inventions List, the news magazine has selected 50 innovations that hold the promise of improving our lives.

But enough talk. You just want to see the results. So without further ado, here are the winners. Coming in at Number 1 (drum roll) is The Retail DNA Test.

A start-up called 23andMe, in Mountain View, Calif., funded by Google, has created a US $399 DNA analysis kit that supposedly can study your saliva to predict the likelihood that you will suffer from any of more than 90 traits and conditions ranging from baldness to blindness. Although it has competitors (at a higher price) and detractors who worry about the wisdom of DNA testing without medical consultation, Time wrote that The Retail DNA Test's "retail genomics" kit is the 2008 Invention of the Year.

The top five inventions on the Time list are:

  1. The Retail DNA Test

  2. The Tesla Roadster

  3. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter


  5. The Large Hadron Collider

Time has also added an interactive element to its list this year, enabling readers to cast their votes on its Web site for what they think are the top inventions. As of this moment, the reader poll listed the following as the most popular: 1) Peek, a remote email reader; 2) the T-Mobile G1, the Android smartphone; 3) the MacBook, the sleek laptop from Apple; 4) the iPod Touch, the iconic phone with everything; and 5) the Eye-Fi Explore SD Card, the wireless SD card.

The Time inventions list may not be as insightful as IEEE Spectrum's annual Winners and Losers report, but we think its findings are compelling (mostly because we have covered so many of them this year in our pages;).

A lot of noise about White Spaces

Earlier this week the FCC issued a ruling on ''White Spaces,'' allowing unlicensed devices to operate in certain areas of the radio spectrum allocated to broadcast television.

This ruling affects at least three separate constituencies. First, there are the Internet companies and consumer product manufacturers, who can use this very valuable spectrum to, potentially, blanket the country with always-on wireless Internet connectivity. Next, are the broadcasters''after all, this is effectively coming out of their piece of the pie. Finally, the entertainment industry, worried about how an explosion in unlicensed devices might affect those countless theater systems that use wireless microphones.

I wasn't sure how I felt about this ruling, it is controversial, and in some ways, unprecedented. And I am connected to each of those constituencies; I live a large part of my day online, am grateful when I can pop open my laptop and get connected, frustrated when I cannot. I get my television via broadcast, not cable or satellite. And, with a son who is an actor, I attend theater regularly, and cringe when glitches in a sound system mar a performance.

The White Spaces at issue are the TV channels that, in an analog world, come across as static, in a digital world, simply trigger the screen to display a ''no signal'' message. They prevent broadcast stations in a given market from interfering with each other, and prevent problems at the edges of TV markets, say, for example, in households in New Jersey that pick up signals from both New York and Philadelphia stations. So in New York, for example, channels 2 and 4 are used for broadcast, while channel 3 is a white space; whereas in Philadelphia 3 is an active channel and 4 is a white space. The FCC reasoned that since today's wireless systems are capable of scanning for available channels and selecting only empty frequencies for transmission, such systems, at least at low power, would not interfere with television broadcasts; if they knew ahead of time which frequencies to avoid, they'd have even less of a risk of interfering.

The Commission recognized that interference is a potential problem, relying on a technical report explaining how such interference could be resolved using GPS and a registry of existing signals to prevent new devices from transmitting on those frequencies. Such a system has not been tested directly; and a coalition of Broadway producers and directors led by Dolly Parton was among the groups calling for more tests before issuing a ruling. Other opponents to the ruling included professional sports leagues, Las Vegas casinos, and a coalition of rock musicians, as well as television broadcasters and a long list of senators and representatives. Google led the charge in favor of the ruling.

The ruling as issued includes two different levels of protection against interference. First, there are devices that will use geolocation, that is, have a GPS receiver, use that receiver to determine their location, check a database for active local frequencies, and then lock out those frequencies. Such devices will be legal under the ruling.

Second, devices that don't use geolocation, but instead scan for empty frequencies, are potentially legal, but any designs must be submitted to the FCC for testing before being marketed. Essentially, instead of approving this entire class of devices, the FCC is going to evaluate each device individually.

I spoke to two experts about the topic; one, an expert in the U.S. digital television standard, the other, a specialist in theater sound and lighting systems. I didn't go through standard PR channels to clear the interviews with their employers, so both spoke on the condition I didn't attribute their comments.

To my surprise, actually, both were fairly reassuring. The TV expert said that while building the database of vacant channels will take some doing, the geolocation system seems reasonably safe. Spectrum sensing, he says, has so far failed dismally in testing, so whether this is a reasonable technical option is less clear. One thing he said was not clear from the ruling is whether the frequencies to be opened up involve all the white spaces, or just those in which there is more than one free channel in between active channels. That is, for example, if channels 22 and 25 are active, would both 23 and 24 be up for grabs, or just one of them, and if 36 and 38 are active, would 37 be left as a white space or not. ''If no adjacent channels are allowed, there is a lot less white space than otherwise,'' he says, indicating that that may still be subject to discussion.

I expected my theater expert to be as outraged as Dolly Parton but he told me that he isn't particularly worried. While it's unlikely that the geolocation registry will include every little theater company operating out of a high school gym, he says that the current generation of professional audio equipment is agile enough to deal with interference. In fact, he says, wireless mikes often operate at the same frequencies as local TV broadcasts without significant effects. And manufacturers and distributors of wireless microphones are currently assuring their customers that a ''wireless apocalypse'' is not coming.

Instead, he sees the ruling as an opportunity for the theater community. ''Imagine WiFi everywhere,'' he says, ''we could pump video around,'' generate other special effects.

So I'm somewhat reassured that what's good for Google may indeed be what's good for me.

Photo credit: hungy i


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