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Lucy Lawless asks Dean Kamen: Can our technologies become self conscious?

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Geek pop stars Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, and Lucy Lawless, aka "Xena the Warrior Princess," sat together on a panel today at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; and Lawless quizzed Kamen on his thoughts about computers and consciousness. Kamen redirected the subject to the fact that technology empowers evil as well as good, and never actually answered the question.

Panasonic's Toshihiro Sakamoto shows latest leap in TV screen sizes--to 150 inches

In his keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas, Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic AVC Networks and senior managing director of Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, went for the wow factor when he unveiled a 150-inch plasma TV screen, the largest demonstrated by any company to date. (The previous record for plasma was 103 inches, held by Panasonic; Sharp has gone to 108 inches in LCD technology.) These giant screens arenâ''t big sellers, but they do win their manufacturers bragging rights.

Sakamoto also unveiled a gizmo that has long been wanted and possible, but attempts to create it have raised copyright concernsâ''that is, a Tivo-like television recorder that can leave the house and make recorded content portable. Developed in partnership with Comcast, the device is a combination cable box, hard disk recorder, and portable DVD player. The hard disk recorder/DVD player component snaps off of a base station for use on the road, in the plane, or whereever. I donâ''t have all the details yet, but my guess is this product will avoid the fate of previous attempts to space-shift as well as time-shift TV because the recorded television is locked to the box, that is, cannot be copied over to another device, like a computer or ipod.

Sakamotoâ''s presentation featured a successful demonstration of in-room wireless networking of high definition devices, sending data without compression. (Sony, at its press conference yesterday, attempted a demonstration of a new technology for close proximity networking of high definition gizmos, it didnâ''t work on stage, but redeemed itself at its booth.) Wireless HDTV networks are likely to emerge as a major theme of the Consumer Electronics Show, which opened this morning.

CES 2008 kicks off with 9 mm TV and crystal-laden USB drive

From Senior Editor Tekla Perry at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show:

Last week, getting ready for CES, I made a few predictions. The show has yet to officially open, but already a couple of my predictions came true, during the press conference day that precedes the show.

--The first extremely thin TV appeared at the Pioneer press conference, in the form of a 9 mm thick plasma TV, thinner than an iPhone. It was indeed a prototype. One point.

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--There indeed was a product demonstrated today that got a lot of buzz (mostly of the â''what are they thinkingâ'' kind) and will likely not make it to retailers shelves (or at least never get off those shelves into a shopping bag). Thatâ''s the Active Crystal pendant from Philips. Studded with Swarovski crystals and priced at around $150, this pendant, either shaped like heart or a lock, pops open to reveal USB thumb drives. The coordinating crystal bedecked earbuds might, however, have a chance in the market. Another point.

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--Bill Gates, for his keynote speech, abandoned his traditional Martha Stewart Living type set for a giant screen and virtual scenery. No score.

--As for not getting a free lunch, Iâ''ve got a ticket that says Iâ''m entitled to a free lunch as long as supplies last. I think Iâ''m safe giving myself the point there.

Finally scoreâ''three out of four. Not bad.

Prejudice in nanotechnology is just as ugly as it is anywhere else

Despite a rather feeble attempt to point out that it was not â''Saudi Bashingâ'' in its comments section, the Foresight Institute in its blog managed to do a pretty fair approximation of exactly that, when discussing a recent announcement that Saudi Arabia would be funding nanotechnology research through one of its universities, King Saud University in Riyadh.

It seems that the Foresight Institute doesnâ''t like the idea of a King announcing the funding of nanotechnology research. Itâ''s better if it comes from a government or a CEO to their mind. To them the idea of Kings and Princes harkens back to â''oldenâ'' timesâ''not their preference.

I suppose it wouldnâ''t help to point out that many countries today are in fact â''constitutional monarchiesâ'', like Spain, for instance. Hmmhâ'¿doesnâ''t the UK stand for the â''United Kingdomâ''.

But if this kind of announcement really offends their sensibilities, perhaps they can do themselves a favor and just replace the term â''the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulazizâ'' with the term â''Federal Governmentâ'' as it more or less equates to the same thing in terms of how the funding mechanisms operate.

I am guessing though this is not the real root of their issue with the announcement. It seems to reveal itself later in the comments section when they surmise that the research scientists that they recruit will likely not be female scientists â''who might like to â'' for example â'' drive a car, or be able to work with their male colleagues.â''

Not sure if this is altogether true, I am not an expert on Islamic law. But even if it were, I guess for the Foresight Institute this suffices for denigrating their nanotechnology initiative.

I personally find the US cultural tradition of getting obese on fast food pretty reprehensible, but I am not sure of what that has to do with its nanotechnology funding.

Watching the California storms from your desk

storm2.pngSilicon Valley is in the thick of the biggest wettest windiest storm weâ''ve had in a long time. But you donâ''t have to be here to share the experience. All sorts of web-based tools let you watch the stormâ''s effects online.

The U.S. Geological Survey operates a streamgage network, regularly checking the water levels in rivers and streams around the country, some in real time. You can look at data for individual or aggregated sites here, or download a widget to track the change in water levels from your own web page here. Some individual cities operate their own flood monitoring network; Iâ''ll be checking Palo Altoâ''s regularly here, particularly the San Francisquito Creek at Chaucer Street, where the creek level can climb unbelievable fast as water sheets down from the mountains, and, if it goes over, will affect a fair number of people I know (who are likely spending today sandbagging). People in Napa, worried about the Napa River and nearby creeks going over their banks, will be watching here.

If you want to watch the progress of the storm itself, checkout the USGSâ''s webcams, like this one set up at the Truckee river. You can actually control the cameraâ''s position yourself. Or watch the raging surf here or here.

Finally, on Mount Hamilton, visible on a clear day from Silicon Valley, operates the HamCam. I checked it today, thinking I might catch a snowstorm up at the peak. Something is coming down heavily, at this point itâ''s hard to tell. You can check when the weather clears a little here.

The End of an Era for a Web Browser

By Kieron Murphy

Last Friday, a simple entry in a corporate blog run by Netscape, the AOL Corp. subsidiary, announced that the Web browser that launched the Internet revolution would cease to exist as of 1 February. It might have gone unnoticed through the New Year's weekend, but a sharp-eyed reporter at the BBC picked up the news about Netscape Navigator, and it rang out around the technology world like a bell. The first commercial product for surfing the World Wide Web was dead at the age of 13.

For some, the news came as the inevitable culmination of a long struggle to survive in a fast-moving marketplace measured in "Internet time" -- the heightened pace of development that the Netscape browser invented when it first debuted as Version 1.0 in 1995. For others, those savvy enough to have followed the entire history of the Web phenomenon, from the "browser wars" of the late 1990s through the collapse of the "Internet bubble" earlier this decade, it spoke volumes about the dynamics of capitalism when faced with an idea that shifts all the ground rules. You see, Netscape was the quintessential product that introduced the world to something called "the Internet play" -- it gambled its existence on a business model in which it would sell for free.

Because I can't assume that all of you reading this item will be familiar with the Netscape story, let me rewind through the years a bit and offer a brief history lesson, and I'll try to keep from being boring or sounding like an old curmudgeon. To begin, we have to travel back to a time before blogs, or social networking venues, or even porn sites.

In 1992, the nascent World Wide Web was a protocol for viewing text and graphics via the Internet (itself just a networking protocol) using ideas created largely by a British computer expert named Tim Berners-Lee. The network-delivered pages available on the early Web were mainly vanilla in appearance as befitted the sources they came from, mostly universities. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, though, a 21-year-old senior named Marc Andreesen wanted to develop yet another protocol that would extend the reach of one of Berners-Lee's primary tools for creating network-viewable documents, the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which was still in its infancy. Partnering with an older grad student named Eric Bina at the university's affiliate known as the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA), the two set about to build an application that would enable HTML users to create highly customizable pages and display them in a viewer that would interpret their design code. The result of their team's efforts in 1993 was a new graphical browser, which they aptly named Mosaic. Then they posted the application as a free download via the Internet, where it went viral.

Andreesen graduated that year and headed to California to join the software scene. He soon met a man who would change his life, Jim Clark. In the world of computing, few individuals at that time were as famous as Clark, who had co-founded Silicon Graphics (the pioneering 3-D graphics computing firm) a decade earlier. Clark convinced Andreesen and Bina that their Web browser could form the basis of a new venture -- and Mosaic Communications Corp. was soon born. Recruiting some of the brightest and the best young talent to be found in Silicon Valley, it set about to create a commercial version of Mosaic, which they dreamed might become a "killer application" across the Web, a kind of Godzilla-like presence in computing circles, something they took to referring to as Mozilla. They even made the fanciful step of putting a colorful dragon in the logo of their beta versions of the browser, which lurched over the company's signature "M" symbol.

The buzz they created then in the software universe was staggering. Back in Illinois, the administrators at NCSA felt it and vigorously requested that Clark and company back away from further use of the name Mosaic (as it had been created by developers working for their enterprise). After much negotiation, the name would disappear. The firm would thereafter be called Netscape and the browser named Navigator. Oddly, though, the nickname Mozilla would hang around for a long time to come. By late 1994, Andreesen and his cohorts were distributing free copies of Navigator 0.9, a beta version that seeded the software community with an Internet application that changed perceptions of what the Web could become. He even had a novel idea for marketing it. The company would sell the browser for nothing, make it freely available, and hope to make its money from new software under development that would optimize how browser content was delivered via computer servers.

The technology press had a field day. The new strategy was heralded as "the next big thing." While it basically followed an old scheme of marketing that espoused that you could give away safety razors for nothing if you had the right price for razor blades, it was a bracing proposition for the software industry. Berners-Lee had started the practice, in a way. He made the code for the Web freely available, HTML and all, because he was more interested in advancing communications than he was in money. He hoped that something that was free to all would quickly be adopted by all. Plus, he had built the Web on the foundation of the Internet, a network application usable freely by anyone with the right connection, because it was the property of the United States. With the arrival of Netscape Navigator, the era of free Internet client applications had challenged the hegemony of money-making proprietary software for good.

Andreesen was pictured on the cover of Time magazine as the poster boy of a new revolution. Bill Gates would later lament that his corporation had "missed the Internet." In 1995, Netscape released Navigator 1.0. It changed the world.

Seizing the momentum, Clark took Netscape public the same year. On its first day of trading, its stock price soared from US $28 to $75 and kept on going. Andreesen, 23, was a multimillionaire overnight. He had been right, people were keen to buy server software in bulk. Netscape was a new heavyweight contender in the big-time arena of computing. Everyone then wanted a browser to navigate the new, now multi-faceted, World Wide Web.

However, the emerging notion that a browser was just a network-oriented alternative for accessing files was really beginning to aggravate the principal provider of computer operating systems, Microsoft Corp. So it soon struck a deal with a second group of original Mosaic developers from NCSA. They had spun off another company called Spyglass Inc. to take advantage of all the hoopla. Microsoft licensed the Spyglass Mosaic browser the same year and bundled it as a late add-on to its landmark system, Windows 95. It failed to make much of an impression, though, at first.

Within a year, Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice for more than 90 percent of the traffic generated by user requests for Web pages, which were exploding exponentially. It had become the fastest growing piece of software in history. When Netscape released Navigator 2.0 it was so successful that Microsoft countered with a completely new competitor, Internet Explorer 2.0. From then on, the friction between the two software camps in Redmond and Mountain View was filled with electricity. Gates and company saw the profit to be made in server software and leaped at it. The first "browser war" was on.

Over the next few years, Web usage skyrocketed. So did sales of personal computers, and most of them ran Windows 95. Navigator got better, but so did Explorer. Both were free downloads. But with Win95 you didn't have to bother downloading a browser on your new PC, you could just click on its desktop icon. That proved to be a tall hurdle for Netscape and its Internet play. So, slowly but surely, Microsoft's share of Web usage began to grow and Netscape's shriveled. The online software team at Redmond eventually rewarded Gates with a suite of new products for the Internet, muscling out comers from all corners, not just Netscape. And in 1997 the proverbial fan was hit, Microsoft was challenged with antitrust complaints from literally all across the map. The federal government then stepped in, just as Windows 98 was percolating, delaying matters further.

Finally, a sensational trial resulted in a verdict that found Microsoft to be a "predatory monopoly" and recommended harsh countermeasures. The company appealed the verdict and managed to delay proceedings sufficiently to let its developers gain much-needed ground technically in the fight, which they did admirably. A full setting of the U.S. Court of Appeals subsequently found Microsoft liable again in 2000, but they left the remedy to a special jurist in Washington. Upon the recommendation of the newly elected Bush administration the next year, she ordered only minimal restraints be placed on the software giant.

Battered by the legal army Microsoft brought to the battle, as well as the fierce technology assault it endured, Netscape's founders threw in the towel in the midst of the war. The original partners capitulated in 1998, opting to accept a generous offer from America Online, which had thoughts of using Navigator as its own default browser (but never did for financial reasons). AOL kept the Netscape brand alive for years as a protected entity with its own staff (it even was a registered company up until 2003). Moreover, it tolerated the formation of an open-source community fostered by ex-employees under the Mozilla banner. They eventually produced a new browser variant called Firefox, as well as a host of Web accoutrements. Firefox now stands as the last major opponent to the Microsoftization of the Internet. At last glance, the Mozilla team had garnered about 10 percent of Web usage for itself, giving it a fighting chance against the juggernaut.

So that's why news of the retirement of the Netscape brand by AOL has come as something of a big timestamp for many of us. Wikipedia estimates that Netscape Navigator only has a 1 percent market share anymore. That seems like a pretty good reason to scrap it in 2008. Time has passed it by, probably fueled by millions and millions of dollars devoted to trashing its value by one ruthless American competitor in the marketplace of ideas.

Still, it's what Americans do. We have the "win at all costs" gene born in us. That may finally be the lasting lesson of Netscape Navigator.

[Editor's Note: For more on the prospects of Firefox in the new browser war, please see David Kushner's cover story "The Firefox Kid" in our November 2006 issue of Spectrum.]

Kieron Murphy is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum. The first Web site he ever visited was xxx.lanl.gov as a junior editor at Ziff-Davis Publishing in New York in 1994.

Out of Africa: Will Google solve Africa's worst tech-market failure?

Since electronic mail arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, a strange process unfolds every time one African writes to another African -- even when both are in the same continent. The mail zooms out of Africa, either by an undersea cable or a satellite link, stops briefly at a computer server in Europe (or very rarely the U.S.) and then bounces back to its destination in Africa.

Weirdly, even if two people in, say, Accra, are emailing each other, the messages go first to Europe and then back to Ghana.

To call the process a form of "digital neo-colonialism" doesn't explain why the strangeness continues. African email travels the world not because of any technological inevitability but because human beings have made it that way. At least the human beings who run the world's major email systems. Neither Hotmail nor Yahoo nor Gmail maintain any email servers in Africa. And since they don't, email within even an African city does its strange dance.

The answer is to put a server farm into Africa. Simple? The major tech companies fret about the high costs of doing business in Africa. About unreliable electrical power. About physically securing the server farm. And then there is the basic math. With only a small percentage of Africans using the Internet for email, they wonder whether the cost of maintaining a server farm in Africa is worth the benefit of doing so to African computer users.

The benefit to Africans, by the way, is not obvious to an American. The cost of having server farms thousands of miles way comes in higher-bandwidth charges. Running emails through satellites and undersea cables isn't free. The mailing is free, but not the bandwidth. So Africans essentially pay a "corporate tax" in order to carry on their free emailing through the major services.

Now I must make a full disclosure. None of my information comes from Yahoo, Microsoft or Google. These companies throw a blanket of secrecy over their server farms; so they are not only mum about the absence of an Africa hub. Still, actions speak louder than words anyway, and my sources in Africa tell me we are about to get some action.

For many months in 2007, Google studied the costs and logistics of opening an African server farm. The company sent a team of people to Rwanda last summer for the purpose of scoping out feasibility. Not coincidentally, the daughter of Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, also spent time in Rwanda last summer. Last year, Schmidt himself hosted the president of Rwanda at Google's headquarters.

I teach a class on technology journalism at Stanford Universityand last May Schmidt came to speak to my class. In an unguarded moment, I asked him about Rwanda. When conversation turned to a possible server farm, he went dark, though he did agree that the first server farm in Africa (for a global mail service) would be a boon for Africans.

That server farm may still get switched on, though not likely in Rwanda. It seems the Googlers tired of the obstacles to a large operation in this landlocked country that is still recovering from an awful 1994 genocide. Instead, Google is believed to be close to choosing Kenya, a booming East African country that has the most international links of any African country save for perhaps South Africa. The choice of Kenya seems logical, though a bitterly disputed national election at the end of December has unleashed ethnic hostilities in the country. With Nairobi suddenly burning, Google may hold off on placing a server farm in or around the city.

Since Google doesn't talk about these matters, we will have to wait our turn. But a server farm for at least some of Africa's emailers now seems inevitable. And whomever opens this facility will score many important points and not only with Africans, but with a global digital community that still tends to overlook the world's poorest region. The multinational computer and software companies need a role model -- a successful company who can say we are investing big money in Africa, not just giving handouts or selling Africans our products.

Google, as so many other things, may be that role model. Africans wait.

Out of Africa: the next big thing is phone charging

In the streets of every electricity-starved African city, the new meeting place is the local phone chargerâ''the man with an outlet who can rejuvenate your mobile phone â'¿ for a price.

More mobile phones are getting charged in Africa than ever. In recent years, phone usage has exploded. Today nearly one in five people own a phone, from nearly nothing 10 years ago. The World Bank, which supplies these statistics, calls Africaâ''s mobile phone market, â''the fastest growingâ'' in the world.

The spread of mobile telephony is one of the great development success stories, one largely driven by private investment now totaling in the billions of dollars. The only trouble is that supplies of electricity havenâ''t grown nearly as fast as dial tones.

Some of the worldâ''s leading telecom companies are trying to address Africaâ''s electricity gap through clever innovations. Motorola tested both solar-powered and wind-power cell-phone base stations in sunny Namibia, in southwestern Africa in 2007.

The idea is that rural Africans, about half of whom live off the grid with no hope of getting connected anytime soon, at least will be able to make a phone call. In African cities, mobil-telephony service is excellent, but frequent electricity outages leave peopleâ''rich and poorâ'' scrambling to charge their phone batteries.

Enter Wasswa Abbey, owner of a dusty storefront in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Abbey runs recreation and after-school programs for children in his neighborhood. On the side heâ''s begun to charge mobile phones for people who donâ''t get electricity delivered to their homes. â''This is a slum,â'' he says of his neighborhood. â''Many people donâ''t have a place to charge their phones.â''

A complete charge costs about 30 cents, about the price of a one-minute phone call.

When I met Wasswa at his shop, he was charging five phones, a good day for him, he says. For his customers, trust is key. He is well known in his neighborhood for his community work. â''Customers trust me not to use their phones while charging,â'' he says.

Up the street, on a second meeting, Wasswa, took me on a walk of his neighborhood. We passed a few other shops offering charging and then we came upon a construction site: a new cell tower rising up a mere 100 yards from his shop.

Yet there are new electricity sources coming into the neighborhood, which highlights one difference between the new technology of wireless telephony and the older system of electricity transmission. Mobile phone calls are managed by digital computers and theft of calling time is virtually impossible. Customers buy prepaid cards and then run down their â''unitsâ'' like clockwork. By contrast, electricity is carried over wires. The juice can be stolen; so can the equipment. In poor neighborhoods, many customers donâ''t pay their electricity bills. Prep-paid services are only beginning, and they require smarter, more expensive meters, which themselves are targets for thieves.

Investment in mobile phone services rises, while investment in electricity stagnates.

And another customers drops off a phone for Wasswa to charge.

Getting ready for the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show

logo.gifI spent several hours today getting ready for the Consumer Electronics Show by going through hundreds of emailed press releases, invitations, and announcements. Iâ''m not quite done, but I donâ''t have to finish to make a few predictions.

â''TVs will go from thin to anorexic, as TV manufacturers will tout the flatness of their new models. Many of these â''thinâ'' models, however, will have unsightly bulges in back, that wonâ''t be counted in the measurements. And the thinnest will either be prototypes or will be so expensive they may as well be prototypes.

â''Bill Gates will give his keynote wandering around a stage set representing a living room, kitchen, and home office, predicting the future. We will have seen this future before, but it wonâ''t be any closer to reality than it was five years ago.

â''There will be no free lunch. The box lunches provided for the media will be eaten by hungry bloggers while print journalists, rushing from appointment to appointment, starve. (Uh oh, is this a metaphor for 2008?)

â''One weird product will find itself into every story about the show, print or online. It may never actually get into consumer hands, but itâ''ll get a lot of buzz. Contenders this year: Spykee, the wifi spy robot; Sonic Impact, an under-the-bed speaker system that doubles as a vibrating massager; and the Iona Cube, a radio that changes stations depending on which side is up.

Check back here starting Jan. 6th for news from CES.

Sad Holiday for Space Station Astronaut

The upcoming holidays will be bittersweet for orbiting astronaut Daniel Tani. Yesterday, Tani's mother was killed in a collision between the vehicle she was driving and a moving train in Tani's hometown of Lombard, Ill., according to a report from the Associated Press. Tani was supposed to have returned to Earth this week with the crew of shuttle mission STS-122, in time to celebrate the holidays with his family, but faulty sensors in the external fuel tank caused NASA to postpone the flight until next month (see our prior entry "Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks").

Rose Tani, 90, of Lombard, near Chicago, died from injuries suffered after she attempted to pass a school bus that had stopped at a railroad crossing to wait for the train to pass. A local ABC News affiliate, WLS-TV, reported that the crossing gates had apparently not closed in time to prevent the accident. Tani was informed by a flight surgeon at NASA's mission control shortly after it received the news.

"We'll do everything we can to help him through a very difficult timeframe," said Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The 46-year-old Tani is nearing the end of his second mission in space. He previously flew aboard mission STS-108, in the Endeavour shuttle, to the International Space Station (ISS) in December of 2001, where he performed his first spacewalk. As a member of STS-120 and ISS Expeditions 15 and 16, Tani has performed numerous spacewalks to help with construction work on the orbiting science platform. He has been in space since 23 October of this year.

Tani is married to the former Jane Egan, of Cork, Ireland, and has two small children, ages 3 and 1. His father is also deceased.

"He is obviously pretty sad," the astronaut's brother, Richard Tani, said in Thursday's edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He was pretty close to her. We are all close to her. She was loved by everyone."

NASA said Tani's duties will be reassigned to his current crewmates, station commander Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

"Before anyone launches, they understand that unfortunate things could happen and that's unfortunately part of the difficulties, hardships and risks of space flight," NASA spokesman Jim Rostohar said in an article today in the Chicago Tribune.

Tani is believed to be the first American astronaut to lose a close family member while in space, NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier said.

Our condolences go out to the members of the Tani family on their loss, especially at this time.

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