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Bad Day for a Space Launch

The folks at NASA have a high regard for history. They even have their own museums and a History Office. So you'd think they might have known that today was not a particularly auspicious day to attempt to launch an important space mission.

This morning, the space agency decided to postpone the scheduled launch of the Atlantis orbiter due to problems with onboard engine sensors. Instead, it will attempt to launch the vehicle tomorrow afternoon. Still, some at NASA must have felt the jinx was on for the 6th of December.

On this date 50 years ago, nearly to the same hour this morning, the agency's predecessor (NACA), in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, attempted to put the first American satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral. Known as Project Vanguard, the first orbital try was a spectacular failure. With television cameras broadcasting the event live for the world to see, the Juno I rocket assembly rose four feet from its launch pad and then crumpled in on itself, exploding in a massive fireball.

The historic occasion was a complete embarrassment for the fledgling U.S. space program.

In an ironic twist of fate for the disastrous mission, the rugged satellite slated to be its nation's first in orbit, known as the TV-3, was launched from the nosecone of the Juno when the rocket collapsed beneath it. The nosecone flew away from the explosion and landed harmlessly in the sand a short distance from the pad. NACA engineers recovered the nosecone and found the little, silver TV-3 inside, dented and charred but in otherwise good working order, ready to relay its position. Fifty years later, it rests in a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum, a brave artifact of the responsibility of failure.

These days, those early lessons of the beginnings of the U.S. effort in space provide little more than historic curiosities of a bygone era, something for the folks at NASA to display in their museums. We are all tasked, though, to remember the lessons of history, lest they should come back to haunt us.

Before picking today to launch the latest space shuttle mission, maybe managers in the human spaceflight program should have checked with their counterparts in the history office to see what ghosts may have been lingering around on the 6th of December to remind them of the past.

They certainly chose a poor occasion to test their chances. Better luck tomorrow to all.

The Real Challenge for Nanotechnology Initiatives: Staffing

It seems the whole world has jumped on the nanotechnology bandwagon, announcing national initiatives and allocating funding to expansive programs.

These initiatives are, of course, filled with logistical obstacles, constructing facilities, getting the right equipment, determining the research agenda, etc. The list goes on like this, but no problem may be more acute than getting the necessary staffing.

How do countries that donâ''t have the native scientists and technologists to support these ambitious initiatives manage to recruit the people they need?

This issue is portrayed poignantly in Indiaâ''s national newspaper, The Hindu, where eleven students at the National Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Chennai have been waiting around patiently for the past six months to start their core curriculum as they await the hiring of a professor who would head the department, a reader and two lecturers.

Despite the call for the positions having gone out in May 2006, there is still no professor, reader, or lecturers.

While in this case the university claims they have received a sufficient number of applications, and the holdup has been due to â''delays by the universityâ''s administrative authorities,â'' it will likely prove difficult for some countries and regions to compete for the top scientists and researchers in nanotechnology.

With the example of India, there are many native scientists and engineers that can continue to support the countryâ''s nanotechnology initiatives. But there are those in which recruitment will be necessary, and billion dollar funding announcements wonâ''t fix the problem.

Bali, Hi! U.S. Congress Acts on Climate, Energy

Dec. 6, 2007â''As representatives of the worldâ''s nations meet in Bali to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, the U.S. Congress is taking actions that will significantly enhance the credibility of American negotiators. Last night, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill that would establish a cap-and-trade system to cut emissions and accelerate adoption of new technology. By the end of this week, the House is expected to vote on an energy bill that would boost average fuel efficiency standards for vehicles from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Even if adopted by Congress, to be sure, both bills may end up getting vetoed by President George W. Bush. But they still will establish a legislative agenda for the coming years and outline a platform on which the Democratic Partyâ''s candidate for president¬whoever that turns out to beâ''surely will stand.

The House energy bill raising fuel efficiency standards, which may also include a renewable energy mandate requiring the nationâ''s utilities to generate some fraction of their electricity from green sources by some year in the next decade, is considered a victory for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. Though the House and Senate leadership has dropped sharply in the publicâ''s estimation since Democrats took control at the beginning of last year, Pelosi had to overcome substantial opposition in her own party to obtain the higher fuel efficiency standardsâ''in particular, opposition from Rep. John D. Dingell Jr. of Michigan, an ardent and very powerful advocate of the U.S. auto industryâ''s interests. In recent years, efforts to increase fuel efficiency standards have been stymied as much by jobs-oriented Democrats as by profits-minded Republicans.

The climate bill, Americaâ''s Climate Security Act or S. 2191, also is a substantial legislative accomplishment. Co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the bill emerged last summer as the favored compromise among a handful of similar proposals. The bill covers all sources that emit more than 10,000 tons of carbon in the electric power, industrial, and transportation sectors, and would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 65 percent by 2050. Though the immediate targets fall far short of Kyoto, which required the United States to cut its emissions by 7 percent from their 1990 level by 2012, the bill would commit the country to the principle of binding emissions reductions. With many countries failing to meet Kyoto targets, sincere intentions now count for as much or more than actual immediate success.

Useful summary materials describing S. 2191 can be found at Liebermanâ''s website, including semi-independent assessments. An important issue to watch as the bill wends its way through Congress is how existing big emitters of carbon are handled when emissions allowances are distributed and auctioned: experts like Granger Morgan, a professor of electrical engineering and public policy, have warned that â''grandfatheringâ'' big coal plants built in recent yearsâ''that is, giving them emissions allowances for free, based on their historic emissionsâ''would reward their owners for having made short-sighted investment decisions.

For background on U.S. billsâ''some 200 in all have been introduced in the last couple of yearsâ''Google on Congressional Research Service, climate, and the names Jonathan L. Ramseur and Brent D. Yacobucci. Though CRS reports are done strictly for Congress and are not meant for public distribution, many of them get leaked and end up being accessible online.

Contracts awarded for DARPA's Trust in Integrated Circuits program

Trust, but verify. Ronald Reagan said it in 1987 to characterize US-Soviet relations, and the Pentagon is saying it in 2007 to characterize its relationship with foreign-made microchips. Given the past yearâ''s adventures in dog food, toys and toothpaste, itâ''s hard to fault them for their caution. A year shy of its 50th birthday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched the Trust in Integrated Circuits program, the goal of which is a microchip verification process. Itâ''s basically a Pentagon Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. A chip bearing the Trusted imprimatur will be guaranteed free of malicious content.

DARPA just issued a press release listing contract awards for the program [PDF] and some more details about what those contracts specify. Cliff notes after the jump.

It's not just offshoring that worries the Defense Department. Because the Pentagon now only makes up one percent of the global chip market, it no enjoys leverage over anyone's chipmaking techniques or policies, even that of US-based manufacturers.

Itâ''s too expensive to build your own fab. Even the Defense Department canâ''t afford $3 billion every few years as state-of-the art manufacturing plants slouch toward obsolescence. NSA has a Trusted Foundries program, but as Victoria Stavridou-Coleman (former director of Intel's trust and manageability labs) told me, it â''blesses a process and not a product.â''

The problem is that chips are so complicated at this point that testing them, either physically or logically, is pretty much impossible. The Pentagon wants tests for hardware Trojans, back doors and kill switches (just three in its extensive database of fever dreams), and the testing needs to be nondestructive.

The project consists of three one-year phases, each phase more difficult than the previous. The Phase 1 contracts have been awarded (sorted here by almighty dollar).

$11,941,368 RaytheonHardware and Software
$4,521,299Luna InnovationsField Programmable Gate Arrays
$4,484,286 University of Southern Calif. Information Sciences InstituteGovernment Test Article Team
$2,347,760ISI/XRadiaX Ray Analysis
$940,217Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics LaboratoryGovernment Metrics Team
$600,000MIT Lincoln LabsGovernment Red Team Leader

EVS-23: Rumors & comments & questions, oh my! (1 of 2)

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Is EVS already dead? That was just one of the questions thatâ''s been debated late into the night here at the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23).

Among the plenaries, the workshops, the auditorium sessions (on no fewer than six parallel tracks, damnit), the small lecture series, the lunches, the receptions, and of course gallons of urn coffee are hallway chats, sidebar conversations, and random comments.

So hereâ''s my list of factoids, comments, questions, suppositions, and a bit of opinion (broken into two parts, â''cause there were so many). Theyâ''ve been gathered from three intensive days of discussions with engineers, technologists, researchers, and executives. They were from automakers, battery companies, research institutions, regulatory bodies and more.

Consider this food for thought on the state of electric vehicles today:

- Is EVS already dead? Many of us have debated whether, within 10 years, thereâ''ll simply be no need for EVS. By then, its topics will routinely be part of mainstream auto and utility industry conferences. When Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) conferences start running tracks on energy storage alternatives, and electric-drive systemsâ'¿itâ''s over. Some say five years, some say 10. But where will the true believers and garage converters go then?

- Could it be? Did Toyota goof, big-time? Itâ''s starting to appear that they initially put their money on the wrong lithium-ion chemistry. Their long-term partner Panasonic, which makes nickel-metal-hydride battery packs for the Prius and other Toyota hybrids, has most experience with cobalt-based lithium-ion batteriesâ''the ones behind those videos and pictures of flaming laptops youâ''ve seen on TV or YouTube. Most automakers view them as simply too risky to use in vehicles. GM, on the other hand, put out solicitations to dozens of battery makers for its Volt battery pack, got back 13 proposals, and issued development contracts to Continental (using new vendor A123â''s iron-nanophosphate cells) and to another new vendor, Compact Power Inc. (using LG Chemâ''s manganese spinel cells). Perhaps tight kereitsu relationships arenâ''t so useful when transformative technologies come along?

- Toyota has clearly changed its tune on plug-in hybrids. The company expressed polite skepticism on the topic as recently as six months ago. But as part of the opening plenary here, Koei Saga, the senior general manager in the companyâ''s hybrid-vehicle system engineering division, said clearly, â''We think a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is the most practical approach for normal-size passenger cars.â'' On Sunday and Monday the company offered drives in its own Prius plug-in conversion (adding a second NiMH battery pack to the standard one, for an all-electric range of 7 to 10 miles). Gratuitous advice to GM, Ford et al.: Never, ever count Toyota outâ''as many of you have learned, painfully, over the last three decades.

- Fun factoid: According to a GM insider, for a short while the project now known as Chevrolet Volt was internally called the EV2. But the firestorm around the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? gave that name too many unfortunate connotations, hence Volt.

Iâ''m headed back home in a few hours. If anyone has specific follow-up questions theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

VeriChip Plans Glucose-Sensing RFID Implant

VeriChip, everyone's favorite implantable-RFID-tag company, announced plans to develop a glucose-monitoring tag yesterday for diabetics. VeriChip expects to put the sensor through preliminary clinical trials within 30 months.

According to a white paper released yesterday, the device has three parts: a passive transponder, integrated circuitry, and a glucose sensor, which can calculate the proportion of glucose in the bloodstream. From what I understand, some glucose molecules seep in through a semipermeable membrane and enter a chamber containing a substance that glucose can bind to. The glucose has to fend off a "competition component," and the outcome of that interaction indicates how much glucose is in the bloodstream. Another part of the system detects the mass of the glucose that successfully binds to whatever substance they've chosen and records that in the chip for communication to the outside world.


It's pretty exciting technology, if they can get it to work, and could make for much simpler glucose monitoring without requiring blood samples. Here's what we've had to say about the ethical issues surrounding implantable chips.

EVS-23: Reader questions on battery buzz, plug-in hybrids & V2G technology

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Thanks to everyone whoâ''s written in over the last couple of days. Below are two answers to reader questions I felt had broad interest. Keep â''em coming!

Q: I was wondering what the buzz was about around the show: Batteries, Capacitors, or Fuel Cells? Which ones are being touted as the long-term winner? Do any battery companies stand out? Are they showing any new products? â'' Michael Short

A: As I noted this morning, much of the buzz is about plug-in hybrids, though several speakers warned that their promise is already over-hyped. Remember, less than 100 working plug-in hybrids now exist anywhere on the globe. Some attendees are surprised at the glossy displays of the â''realâ'' automakers exhibiting (Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota).

No oneâ''s handicapping the many battery options, including several distinct chemistries for lithium-ion. (For a discussion of A123â''s iron nano-phosphate cells, see â''Lithium Batteries Take to the Roadâ''.) But others marvel at the broad array of electric vehicles now offered for sale, from three- and four-wheeled low-speed vehicles to medium-duty urban delivery trucks. Theyâ''re not garage conversions; theyâ''re real-world products from large companies sold at authorized dealers. And, said Efrain Ornelas of Pacific Gas & Electric in a well-attended lecture, in the near term, those medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles may offer the most convincing case for the benefits of plug-in hybrids.

Q: Is there any discussion or actual technology for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) interconnection being discussed or shown? Iâ''m all for plug-in hybrids, but Iâ''m hoping the automakers donâ''t lock in too much on a â''charge-onlyâ'' standard (like thereâ''s any danger theyâ''ll lock in on a standard soon). â'' Glenn Skutt

A: Oh yes. The concept of V2G permeates the conference, though few people agree on exactly what it means. Some go directly to the concept that utilities could use smart grid technology and intelligent meters to draw a small amount of energy from each of millions of grid-connected electric drive vehicles. Those vehicles could be recharged at night, when excess capacity is readily available, and owners could agree to make a small portion of their battery energy available at times of peak demand to let utilities meet the peak of their demand curve.

Others caution that such a vision is a couple of decades away. First, smart meters must be in place. Second, automakers and utilities must meet, learn to speak each othersâ'' languages, and agree on communications protocols for the information to be exchangedâ''and where and how metering and battery control actually happen. Cyriacus Beijs, of the French utility EDF, presented a paper on a simple, inexpensive, and universal communication protocol for identifying a charging vehicle to the utilityâ''and asked the automakers in the crowd to help him make it a reality.

Iâ''ll be posting once or twice more from EVS-23. If anyone has specific issues theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

No-cubicle trend will increase jobs for physical therapists

Cisco is the poster company for a new trend in workplace design, the no-cubicle open office. In a study reporting on the topic, the company touts the efficiency of not wasting empty offices on employees who are out that day, the ability to form flexible work groups, and the less drab, more pleasant look to an open office.

The San Jose Mercury News is the latest publication to write about this trend; itâ''s been covered in much of the business press and discussed at conferences,

Youâ''d think it was the greatest workplace innovation, since, well, cubicles.

The photo of a Cisco no-cubicle office in the recent San Jose Mercury News article set off my alarm bells, however. The no-cubicle environment in the picture is an ergonomic nightmare. I canâ''t believe the article didnâ''t discuss this downside to the wonders of the new office.

I called Lisa Voge-Levin, an ergonomic consultant who helps companies design healthy work environments, and asked her to look at the Cisco photo with me. Hereâ''s what she had to say.

â''The chairs look like armchairs. They donâ''t seem to be adjustable for different sizes of people. They are giving no lumbar support. That puts people at risk of lower back injury.â''

â''The people have some kind of support under their laptops, it appears to be the kind with a beanbag or pillow that molds to the legs, with a hard surface on top of it. This makes the computer more stable. If you look at the peopleâ''s postures, their elbows are

bent at 90 degrees, that is good, but their wrists are bent up, and their necks are bent down; thatâ''s bad for the neck, and the taller the person is the worse heâ''ll have it.

â''Notice the one man has water lined up on the ground. That is where heâ''ll be putting things. So how many times a day will he be bending down? Will he bend down to put his laptop on the ground when he gets up to go to the bathroom? So much bending can cause back issues.â''

â''And look at the cords; theyâ''re a huge tripping hazard.â''

All this, Voge-Levin says, contributes to neck and back injuries including muscle and tendon strain as well as such serious injuries as ruptured discs. She also notes that in such an environment, it is hard to control lighting, glare, or noise; all can lead to headaches.

On the positive side, she points out, people have gotten isolated in the workplace, to the point where they spend their days emailing instead of talking to the person in the next cubicle. Addressing the isolation problem is good, but, she says, this solution goes overboard. You can eliminate or reduce the height of cubicles, but still place workers at adjustable desks, with adjustable chairs, working on laptops sitting on stands that prevent neck strain.

These Cisco workers are going to be uncomfortable very soon, she concludes.

U.S. Students Still Trail Others in Science, Math

The song remains the same for American teens when it comes to science and mathematics: "We don't need no education."

Despite attempts in recent years to bolster education in fundamental areas, a major international study released today found that youngsters in the U.S. still lag behind their peers in the developed nations when it comes to the technical disciplines. Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study found that in standardized tests conducted in 30 industrialized countries American kids performed near the bottom of the ranks.

U.S. students recorded an average science score lower than the average in 16 other OECD nations; in math, American teens did even worse, posting an average score lower than the average in 23 of the other leading industrialized countries, according to a report today from the Associated Press.

The 2006 PISA tests given to 15-year-olds around the world focused primarily on science but included a mathematics portion, as well. There was no change in the math results among the U.S. teens compared to the findings recorded four years ago when the last PISA study was conducted, according to the AP. The science scores aren't comparable between 2003 and 2006, because the tests were not the same.

Interestingly, American girls and boys did about the same on the science and math portions of the test.

As far as international competition went, it was youngsters from Finland who performed at the top of the class in science and math, with their peers from Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea rounding out the top five.

A press release from the OECD highlighting the results of the study stated that the PISA tests found that students in general were not particularly attracted to science and math:

While most students polled said they were motivated to learn science, only a minority aspired to a career involving science: 72% said it was important for them to do well in science; 67% enjoyed acquiring new knowledge in science; 56% said science was useful for further studies; but only 37% said they would like to work in a career involving science and 21% said they would like to spend their life doing advanced science.

The organization's leader, Secretary-General Angel Gurría, in his remarks in Tokyo today on the OECD findings said: "Successful learning experiences involve enabling environments at school, at home, everywhere. To get it right requires a deep understanding of how the system works. PISA is one of the tools at hand to improve performance, not only for policy makers but for all of us striving to give our children the best education we can. But getting it right also requires courage to take the right measures and to reform when needed."

Apparently, this message has not gotten through sufficiently to policy makers in the United States -- despite all the rhetoric of the last several years.

Atomically Precise Manufacturing Gets a Roadmap

One of the obstacles for scientists taking molecular nanotechnology (MNT) as seriously as its loyal adherents is that its vision is so technologically distant from what we can accomplish today that good, old-fashioned scientific skepticism just canâ''t be overcome.

But a good step-by-step roadmap for the research, outlining what research can be conducted now, and if that is successful what the next steps could be, would help make some more believers.

To this end, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers held a workshop in October in Washington, DC entitled Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems (TRPN) that was the culmination of two years worth of work by the Foresight Institute in collaboration with the Waitt Family Foundation and the Battelle Memorial Institute, among others.

Dr. Paul Burrows, a Laboratory Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory gives a thoughtful rundown of the meeting and what it could mean in Small Times.

The roadmap has not yet been completed, but the Foresight Institute is expected to publish something soon.

What may be most heartening about this news is the flexibility afforded the roadmap with the understanding that APM may not be achievable with universal assemblers.

According to Burrows, Eric Drexler himself concedes that even if self-replicating assemblers may be feasible, they may not be the best method for achieving APM, and that further refinements of the vision are to be expected.


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