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Wireless energy

The New York Times reports today from the Intel Developers Forum that Intel is the latest to tantalize us with the promise of wireless power.

Wireless power! No more noodle soup under my desk where brutal Darwinian struggles unfold between the cell phone charger, the laptop charger, the digital camera charger, and the electric carving knife charger*, all jockeying for space on the power strip.

On Thursday, the chip maker plans to demonstrate the use of a magnetic field to broadcast up to 60 watts of power two to three feet. It says it can do that losing only 25 percent of the power in transmission.

Intel calls it WiTricity (wireless electricity) and it's built on the shoulders of MIT giant Marin Soljacic. Mauricio Freitas has cool pictures.



Combine this development with the new wave of low-power chips, and I have high hopes for an end to the cold war under my desk.

*(No, I don't have an electric carving knife.)

GM to Market Volt in Europe as Opel or Vauxhall

General Motors has announced plans to launch European versions of its much-ballyhooed Volt, the plug-in hybrid it expects to start producing in 2010, according to a report this week in the Financial Times. GM expects to sell it on the Continent as an Opel, and in the United Kingdom as a Vauxhall. The Volt will be a so-called series hybrid, in which the car is always propelled by its electric motor, with a backup internal combustion engine recharging its lithium-ion battery pack when necessary. Toyotaâ''s plug-in electric car, also scheduled for 2010, will be a parallel hybrid, in which the electric motor and internal combustion engine alternatively provide traction, as required. According to the FT, groups led by Koreaâ''s LG Chem and Bostonâ''s A123Systems are competing for the contract to provide the Voltâ''s batteries.

Large Nerd Collider

The Large Hadron Collider is set to fire up on September 10. Not sure why, but don't want to slog through tedious explanations of the Higgs boson and the Standard Model? Have a look at this informative rap narrative, delivered by persons in lab coats and hard hats.

It actually gets kind of catchy.

The Javelin Throw Goes 21st Century

One of the oldest Olympic contests has gotten a major technical upgrade, after thousands of years. The javelin throw is one of the most iconic events to take place during the Games. It has been vied for since 1906 in the modern era and for a millennium in the ancient Olympics. Part of track and field, competition in the venerable spear toss gets underway in Beijing today, and the athletes will have new javelins in hand that should increase the distance of their throws.

History tells us the ancient Greeks competed in flinging the javelin as far back as 3000 years ago. It was practical exercise, because the ability to throw a spear accurately at great distance was a much-prized ability for hunters and warriors. In recent times, though, the javelin competition has been restricted to the infield of sports stadiums. After the 2004 Athens Games, the International Amateur Athletic Federation decided that, in addition to metal and fiberglass, javelins could be made of new carbon-fiber materials.

At the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, some contestants will be throwing the new OTE Composite FX Carbon/Aluminum Javelin from Gill Athletics, of Champaign, Ill. According to the company, the combination of metal and carbon-fiber composites enables javelin throwers to achieve consistent distances of over 90 meters (the contemporary world record is 98.48 m) using the Composite FX.

The firm boasts on its Internet site that its javelin "does make a difference â'¿ with its superior vibration dampening qualities and flight characteristics."

We'll find out later today whether it has what it takes to fly farther than the other spears at this year's modern Olympics.

U.S. Uniforms Offer Latest in Material Tech for Athletes

The Speedo LZR Racer line of swimsuits (which we chronicled a while back here) is far from alone in changing the look and feel of sportswear for American athletes at the Olympics. With basketball and track and field heating up in Beijing, attention is focusing on the enhancements offered by the uniforms being worn by the U.S. teams in those sports.

The U.S. men's basketball team is, without doubt, the highest profile squad of athletes at the Games. Dubbed the "Redeem Team," for its goal of redeeming the disappointing Bronze Medal performance in 2004 in Athens, the American hoopsters represent the elite of the professional ranks from the Unites States. Led by superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Team USA is the overwhelming favorite to strike gold this year. Today, they romped to an easy 106-57 victory over a talented German national team, in early competition in the medals bracket.

Plus, they looked good in their specially designed uniforms developed by Nike Inc., of Beaverton, Ore., which has gone to great lengths to ensure the Americans can play at their highest level. Before the squad traveled to China, Nike showcased the new outfits at a press conference in New York City (see the press release) in which the company outlined the technology behind the togs called the Nike Swift System of Dress. These include overall lighter weight (by 31 percent), an engineered mesh that provides zoned cooling, and an etched graphic design that allows greater airflow.

Not wanting to let the track and field team down, Nike has also developed performance wear for the men and women who are running, jumping, and throwing at the Bird's Nest in Beijing. The Nike USA Track and Field (USATF) uniforms are also the product of years of research and development. The company says the USATF outfits also employ its Swift System materials and design features, intended to reduce weight and drag on runners. It has also even developed custom gloves and socks featuring dimpled surfaces to cut down on wind resistance, which Nike claims can cut drag on portions of a runner's body by as much as 19 percent.

Oh, and Nike has designed advanced footwear for the athletes, as well.

The U.S. teams will not be the only national contingents donning new streamlined uniforms in Beijing. Other nations are outfitting their athletes in the latest gear from Nike and its sportswear competitors. The Americans simply get to use them for free, as a promotional effort.

It does make one wonder, though, about the spirit of pure competition at the Olympic Games when Kobe Bryant gets an advantage for playing in a technically superior garment that the high-priced star gets to wear for nothing.

Out of Africa: does ownership matter?

Technological systems, such as electricity or the Internet, are often portrayed as powerful, independent economic -- and even historical -- forces that work on people and society, in much the way a doctor operates on a patient. The one-way, or uni-directional, view of technological change provokes vigorous dissent, yet remains a popular way of conceptualizing how innovations influence human behavior at many levels.

Because techno-determinism is epecially popular with engineers, designers and inventors -- in short, the very people who create new technologies -- there is sometimes insufficient attention given to who owns a given technological system and what might be the benefits of new ownership arrangements.

In the arena of electricity generation in Africa, such a question is urgent and interesting. One fresh look suggests that private ownership of Africa's national electricity systems may in some cases result in healthier, more innovation and better managed systems.

Unlike the U.S., where private ownership of electricity generation is the norm, in Africa government tends to operate and own electricity companies. The standard of government ownership partly results from default: few private investors are willing to take on the responsibility and costs associated with providing one of the most social of all technological goods, electricity.

In only one instance in sub-Saharan Africa -- the world's most energy-poor region of the world -- does a private corporation own an entire national electricity grid. The country is Cameroon and the owner is AES Corp.

Seven years ago, in 2001, AES purchased a controlling share of Cameroon's government-owned electricity company, which relied chiefly on hydro-electricity, drawn from two large dams. The deal made AES the largest private employer in Cameroon, and one of the largest single investors anywhere in Africa outside of the oil, gas and mining sectors.

AES inherited a broken company. Theft of electricity was widespread. Employees corruptedly colluded in these thefts. And the heavy reliance on hydro-electricity left Cameroon, a well-endowed West African country with two major cities, chronically short of power.

At first, AES seemed to make things worse, suggesting that critics of electricity privitization, of which there are many in Africa, were correct. The company, which had never operated in the region before, misunderstood the extent of the problems and failed to recognize that Cameroonians would ultimately fix them -- not imported international managers and technicians.

They shift to an Africanized leadership worked well. In a new report by the government of Cameroon, AES receives acclaim for expanding generating capacity, improving the condition of technological systems and investing in local talent.

Today, AES employs 2,500 people in Cameroon and supplies electricity to more than half a million customers.

The relative success of AES in Cameroon is still fragile; the company must run hard simply to keep the lid on social pressures that compel many poor people to perceive the electricity company as a source of pillage -- and exploiter who puts profits ahead of public services.

Yet because electricity service has improved in Cameroon, advocates of private ownership of national electricity grids can point to one working example of their theory. Even skeptics of the conclusion are reminded by Cameroon's experience that who owns a technological system can matter a lot.

Magazine: Stop Gushing Over the Olympic World Records

The folks at Slate magazine, usually cynics on their best days, want the rest of us to put an end to the unbridled amazement at all the world records being set in the first week of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

It seems their principal beef is with the all-time marks being set in the swimming events, in which stars like Michael Phelps of the United States keep shattering records. They may be buzz-killers, but they do have a few good points to make. Maybe we're not being jaded enough about how much today's athletes are extending their performances with the help of some sophisticated, new techniques and technologies.

The online magazine lays out a few of these enhancements in an article in their Human Nature section (please see Olympic Inflation). Here's a brief sampling of some of their gripes.

Note: We've covered some of these items already in this forum.

  • The Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit line: 'It reduces friction (compared with skin) and is structurally designed to compress and streamline the body for maximum speed.'

  • Depth of Aquatics Center pool: 'This is the deepest pool ever used in the Olympics. Depth disperses turbulence, reducing resistance.'

  • Starting blocks for swimmers. 'Nonskid versions have replaced the old wooden ones, boosting dive propulsion.'

  • Medical analysis of athletes. 'Swimmers are blood-tested after each race to measure lactic-acid buildup.'

  • Sports scientists on teams. 'They run the monitoring and analysis. The U.S. swim team has four.'

These are, mostly, enhancements that competitors did not have in past Olympics swim meets (especially going back before Athens in 2004).

So should we still be cheering so loud when these superb athletes knock a sizable chunk off a world record? Why not?

It's just human nature to get excited about seeing the best performances ever occurring in front of our eyes right now. We may know they are getting better training, equipment, and feedback; but that doesn't really dampen the thrill of watching the finest athletes on the planet turn in the fastest results ever.

Phelps will be swimming for gold today in the 200-meter individual medley at the Aquatics Center (a.k.a., the Cube). If he should happen to win the race and set another all-time best mark, go ahead and make a little noise for him.

Despite what the cynics might say, he would deserve it.

Michael Phelps Rules the Waves at the Olympics

U.S. swimming champion Michael Phelps has made history in Beijing by becoming the first 11-time gold medalist in the Olympics. He is now the unquestioned greatest short-distance swimmer ever. But could there be more to his story than meets the eye?

Yesterday, Phelps won the 200-meter individual butterfly and followed that up an hour later with a winning effort in the 800-meter freestyle relay. Both races resulted in world records. He posted a mark of 1 minute 52.03 seconds in the four-lap butterfly event, shattering his own record of 1:52.09 from the 2007 world championships. In the freestyle relay he set the pace for the Americans with a leadoff leg of 1:43.31 that resulted in a phenomenal total time of 6:58.56, the first mark ever recorded under 7 minutes for the four-man event (smashing the previous mark of 7:03.24 set by the U.S. squad at last year's championship).

Accounts of his remarkable achievements abound on the Web (such as this AP story).

Phelps faces only an easy semifinal today. Then he will return to pursue three more gold medals at the Aquatics Center, where he has already won five of five finals in world-record times. He previously earned six golds at the Athens Games. In terms of gold, Phelps is now the lone holder of the all-time Olympics medal count, eclipsing the nine won by legends such as Larissa Latynina (gymnastics), Carl Lewis (track and field), Paavo Nurmi (running), and Mark Spitz (swimming).

What we're interested in, though, in this forum, is how technology might have helped boost him through the water in Beijing. We've covered the revolutionary swimsuits, the Speedo LZR Racer line, that he and other athletes are wearing at the Olympics this year (please see Olympic Tech in China). Could there be more?

Absolutely. Here's one more example.

A professor of fluids mechanics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has been working with USA Swimming, the group that fields the American team at the Olympics, on improving event times by analyzing the hydrodynamics of its competitors in the pool.

Professor Timothy Wei, head of Rensselaerâ''s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, has developed cutting-edge hardware and software that analyzes a swimmer's movement through the water. He used it to consult with USA Swimming's coaches to break down the techniques of the athletes under their supervision. Wei's experimental flow measurement technology uses sophisticated mathematics with stop-motion video technology to identify key vortices, pinpoint the movement of the water, and compute how much energy the swimmer exerts.

It could be responsible for giving the U.S. team members the extra precision they need to perfect their strokes, according to one of the participants in the process.

"Swimming research has strived to understand water flow around a swimmer for decades, because how a swimmer's body moves the surrounding water is everything," said USA Swimming's Biomechanics Manager Russell Mark. "The ability to measure flow and forces in a natural and unimpeded environment hasn't been available until recently, and Dr. Wei's technology and methods presented USA Swimming with a unique opportunity that United States swimmers and coaches could learn a lot from."

As outlined in an account at the Newswise site online (please see "Top Secret" Technology To Help U.S. Swimmers Trim Times at Beijing Olympics), Wei believes the real secret to success in training an athlete to be a faster swimmer lies in understanding how they interact with the fluid they move through.

"To see how a swimmer's motion affects the flow, you need to know how much force the swimmer is producing, and how that force impacts the water," Wei noted.

You can see more about Wei's work with the U.S. swim team by viewing the videos Rensselaer has posted to its university Web site.

As for the new all-time gold medal winner, he may be so talented that training technology just might be a ripple behind him in a larger scheme of things.

After finishing second to Phelps and teammates in the 4X200 freestyle yesterday, Russia's Alexander Sukhorukov quipped, "He is just a normal person, but maybe from a different planet."

It must be a planet made of water.

India to Negroponte: Drop Dead

Nick Negroponte must be beside himself. For the visionary behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, the hits just keep on coming. The single best bait-and-switch publicity ploy of the year was used to drive another nail in OLPCâ''s coffin. On 29 July, an Indian education minister announced that researchers at two of the countryâ''s leading technology schools were at work on a $10 laptop. TEN DOLLARS!! Of course, 10 bucks for a computer is a pipe dream, and the ministry issued a correction putting the anticipated price at, you guessed it, $100. But what a way to make a splash! Now everyone will be keeping an eye on Bangalore to see if India can do what the brightest minds contributing to the OLPC couldnâ''t: hold the line on that iconic price.

The announcement put an exclamation point on what had to be the most dyspepsia-inducing two-year period of Negroponteâ''s life. Back in 2006, Indiaâ''s Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, characterized OLPCâ''s XO laptop as â''pedagogically suspectâ''â''a succinct way of saying that there was no certainty of a return on the nearly $200 million it would have to lay out in order to procure a shipment of the machines. After all, said Banerjee, â''We need classrooms and teachers [for the elementary school children targeted by OLPC] more urgently than fancy tools.â'' No arguing that.

Negroponte had to have gone from sipping to chugging antacid as he watched: the price of his brainchild creep up to $188 from the $100 figure that had become part of OLPCâ''s branding; Intel leave the OLPC governing group after the chipmaker refused to quit work on its in-house $100 laptop, the Classmate; delays in the XO laptopâ''s rollout and complaints regarding its durability when the computer finally appeared; and the defections of high-level contributors, some of whom cast aspersions on the effort. And now this: one of the largest markets for his product has not only declared the machine computer-non-grata, but now insists that whatever he can do, they can do better.

Pass the Pepto.

Out of Africa: solar-powered transmitters gain traction

Could mobile-phone transmitters drive the first widespread commercial use of solar-power in Africa?

A number of companies are betting on that -- and whether they succeed will say a lot about the long-term chances that solar-energy can deliver real benefits to large numbers of Africans.

Generally, solar-energy has proved too expensive for African homes and too difficult for African electricity companies -- beset by many operational handicaps -- to master. Mobile-phone companies, which in Africa are prospering, are better positioned to embrace alternative energy sources, and mobile-phone base stations are a good candidate because, in rural Africa, grid power often is unavailable.

A Swedish-Indian company named VNL, VNL, plans to introduce solar-powered base stations aimed at the African marketing, working through various suppliers of telecom equipment.

VNL's big engineering claim: an easy-to-build radio tower that consumes no more electricity than required for an ordinary light bulb.

Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent have separately installed about 400 solar-powered base stations in African countries including Senegal and Uganda.

VNL's base station will cost $3,500 and require 100 watts to run, about the same as a light bulb. By contrast, the GSM stations most widely used today can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. The most energy-efficient models require around 600 watts; others may need several thousand watts.

Critical support for these innovations is starting to come from Africa's leading mobile-phone providers, notably Celtel, MTN and Vodaphone, who together control a majority of the sub-Saharan telephone market.


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