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Plug-In Priuses: Now from your Toyota dealer!

One of the challenges of converting your Prius to a plug-in hybrid--aside from the cost ($10K to $30K)--has been the garage-shop nature of the converters.

Hymotion, owned by lithium-ion cell maker A123 Systems, has now announced that its six initial installers include four Toyota dealerships. They're in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC.

The conversion module still has to be ordered through the Hymotion website. But this now offers one-stop shopping for the Prius owner who wants to expand the car's full-electric running time, and juice it up from the wall socket at night--but doesn't want to haul the car to a third party.

One worry about the conversions, by the way, has been whether they void the manufacturer's powertrain warranty. While Toyota is clearly unhappy about any modifications to its very carefully engineered hybrid system, plug-in advocacy sites like Calcars report that many dealers either miss or ignore such conversions.

Another small step toward Plug-In Priuses, whether Toyota wants them or not ....

Mars Lander Standing By for Radio Instructions

The Phoenix science vehicle is patiently waiting on the northern plains of Mars for its handlers back on Earth to sort out a couple of communications glitches before getting to work.

Phoenix uses a pair of satellites orbiting the red planet to boost its radio signals to and from its mission control center at the University of Arizona. Since touching down 11 days ago (please see Phoenix Landing on Mars Makes History), the lander has been idled, first, by a radio cut-off with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, then by a similar shutdown with the orbiting Odyssey observatory.

NASA said the problem with Odyssey started yesterday, when the satellite's communications equipment went into "safe mode" and stopped transmitting. The cause for the shutdown was probably caused by high-energy particles from space interrupting the satellite's computer memory. NASA engineers are busy at work trying to reestablish the radio relay but don't expect the problem to be resolved before Saturday. In the meantime, the two satellites' controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., have tinkered remotely with the Reconnaissance Orbiter to get its radio system working properly.

Before the second radio glitch occurred, Phoenix was able to conduct two practice rounds of digging and dumping the clumpy soil into its onboard analysis instruments, according to a statement released yesterday by the lander's mission control center, in Tuscon, Ariz. The University of Arizona team expects to be able to resume contact with the lander later today via the Reconnaissance Orbiter and resume preliminary operations.

Phoenix will then complete a sequence of commands that are already stored in its computer. That sequence includes instructions for the lander to continue taking images required to assemble a 360-degree high-resolution panorama.

The two practice digs have already enticed scientists about some bright material in the soil just beneath the surface.

"Two scoops into the soil we see there's a white layer becoming visible in the wall of the trench," said Carol Stoker of NASA Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field, Calif., a member of the Phoenix science team.

Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith said, "We've had an impassioned discussion of whether that may be salts or ice or some other material even more exotic."

Climate Legislation Showdown

This week, the U.S. Senate opened discussion of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would institute a system of carbon trading in which emitters would buy or sell allowances, having received an initial allotment partly for free, partly in an auction. Though the bill is not likely tp pass Congress this year and is sure to be vetoed even if it does, itâ''s considered almost a foregone conclusion that the new Congress will enact some kind of carbon trading bill next year and that the newly elected president will sign it. McCain cosponsored a lineal ancester of Lieberman-Warner, and Obama promised in his victory speech on Tuesday night, June 3, to forecefully address the climate issue.

Precisely because it seems so clear that climate legislation is on its way, business and labor are squaring off, seeking to influence and mold the bill that finally makes it to the presidentâ''s desk. Yesterday, June 4, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Senateâ''s members saying that Lieberman-Warner â''fails to preserve American jobs and the domestic economy, does little to address the international nature of global climate change, and does not sufficiently promote accelerated technology development and deployment.â''

Citing six macroeeconic studies (without actually naming them), the chamberâ''the U.S. business communityâ''s main political representativeâ''said that on any reckoning the bill would cost the United States â''a staggering amount of money.â'' It said the bill could cause the GDP to decrease as much as 3.4 percent, and that the average annual household cost of the bill could be between $1,000 and $6,700.

Those claims are not going unchallenged. The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a study assessing â''costs and opportunities â'' under Lieberman-Warner arguing that higher energy costs will be offset by improvements in energy efficiency, aggressive deployment of renewables, andâ''starting about 2020â''extensive carbon capture and storage. â''Lieberman-Warner CO2 recuction tarets are achievable with mimla increase in total discounted energy system costs,â'' the report says.

The NRDC cooperated on a second report with CERESâ''an organization representing major institutional investors with assets that would be affected by carbon regulationâ''and two top California utilities. The report, an analysis of how the countryâ''s 100 largest electric utilities would be affected by carbon legislation, argued that auctioned allowances would provide funds for energy efficiency programs, clean energy technologies, and consumer benefits offsetting higher electricity costs.

On Tuesday this week, June 3, University of Massachusetts economists also issued a report taking issue with the chamberâ''s claims. â''Job Opportunities for the Green Economy,â'' an analysis done in cooperation with the United Steelworkers and the Center for American Progress, evaluates six climate-fighting strategies in terms of how many workers in existing occupations could find new opportunities. For example, more rapid deployment of high-performance wind turbines could provide work for the countryâ''s 168,000 sheet workers. Affordable solar energy will increase employment for 150,00 â''electrical engineersâ''â''technicians, presumably, not, sorry to say, the engineers who read and support IEEE Spectrum magazine!

Cell phones, brain tumors, teenagers, and texting

j0433100.gifIt looks like Iâ''m going to be shopping for a better text-message plan.

For the past year, Iâ''ve been fighting a losing battle against text messaging. My teenage son has a plan that gives him lots of voice minutes, but only 250 text messages. Several times heâ''s busted his text message limit, incurring overage charges as high as $20. â''Why oh why,â'' Iâ''ve pleaded, â''canâ''t you just call the person and ask about the humanities project or analysis homework or whatever instead of sending five text messages back and forth?â''

No more. From now on, Iâ''m going to be encouraging texting instead of calling, weird as that will feel. Because after years of following the cell phone and brain tumor research, while the evidence is not all in, Iâ''m thinking encouraging my kids to hold cell phones next to their heads is not a good idea. And texting instead of talking may just prevent big health problems down the road.

Cell phone radiation always made me a little nervous; I read the Swedish study back in 2002, and I do look at SAR numbers (Specific Absorption Rate, a way of measuring radiation that gets from a cell phoneâ''s antenna into the human head) when I shop for phones.

Since 2002, a number of studies have hinted at long-term problems, reporting

that people who used cell phones heavily for 10 years had a statistically signficant increase in brain tumors on the side of the head on which they typically hold the cell phone. Still, in other studies cell phones came up clean, and, the jury was widely seen to be still out, with the industry and governments awaiting the results of a 13-country study coordinated by the World Health Organization, the so-called Interphone Study. Those results have been delayed for several years; itâ''s not clear why. Meanwhile, individual researchers involved in the Interphone study have started speaking out.

According to Microwave News, one such researcher, Bruce Armstrong of the University of Sydney School of Public Health told "TodayTonight," an Australian current affairs show, that "I would not want to be a heavy user of a mobile phone. "People might be shocked to hear that the evidence does seem to be coming more strongly in support of harmful effects." And another researcher, Israel's, Siegal Sadetzki, told the Toronto Star that â''our results are in line with previous results that are showing something is going wrong here." A few weeks ago, Australian neurosurgeon Vini Khurana stated that cell phones might turn out to be a worse public health disaster than smoking or asbestos.

Meanwhile, all the doctors on television discussing Sen. Ted Kennedyâ''s glioma, a type of tumor frequently mentioned in conjunction with cell phone use, are making the disease itself more real to me.

The prudent thing to do, many doctors and scientists are advising, is to use a headset instead of talking directly into the phone. Still, wireless headsets are still radiating, albeit with a lot less power than a cell phone; there's no information yet on Bluetooth and the brain.

So texting. I think itâ''s definitely the way to go. My teenager is going to be thrilled.

American Auto Upheaval Radically Changes GHG Outlook

Jim Hansen, the GISS/Columbia University modeler who has had such a huge influence on climate policy, often observes that action plans habitually fail to keep pace with the latest developments, sometimes to their detriment. A case in point he mentioned a few years ago when I was interviewing him for a book: the near-elimination of CFCs pursuant to the Montreal Protocol had a positive implication for climate, because CFCsâ''besides being ozone eatersâ''also are potent greenhouse gases. A similar case in point from todayâ''s newsâ''the precipitous drop in U.S. large car sales.

By the end of April, as noted in an earlier blog post (below), record-high gasoline prices were beginning to have a discernible effect on U.S. driving habits. Now, with the publication of May auto sales data, industry leaders and analysts see a profound â''structural shiftâ'' or â''watershedâ'' that is likely â''permanentâ'' and â''irreversible.â'' Among the dramatic developments noted in the press, starting with a report and commentary in todayâ''s New York Times:

â'¢ For the first time since 1992, the vehicle most sold in the United States in May was not an SUV or light truck

â'¢ the two most popular cars were the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which helped Asian auto makers surpass the top three U.S. automakers in the U.S. market for the first time ever

â'¢ sales of SUVs and trucks having dipped below car sales in March and April, the May ratio of cars to trucks was 57:43

â'¢ U.S. auto sales fell 30 percent in May, and total 2008 sales may be below 15 million vehicles, compared to 17.4 in 2000

If Americans are starting to stop buying SUVs, with it costing up to $30,000 a year to fuel a top-end model, could their next step be to junk the SUVs they already own and switch to more fuel-efficient cars? If that happens, the impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be dramatic.

Thatâ''s worth noting this week, as the Senate opens debate on legislation to cap and trade carbon emissions. The Warner-Lieberman draft bill would impose a federal tax on gasoline that would reach 40 cents a gallon by 2030. But with gasoline prices closing in on $4/gallon and likely to go even higher, the question of a federal tax could be moot. In fact, as noted in the earlier post, the higher prices could give the United States a mighty push toward carbon reduction, helping it get into step with international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

High Gasoline Prices Start to Bite into Driving, SUV Ownership

(May 7 post)

With U.S. gasoline prices now at an all-time record high, having climbed in fits and starts for five years, the logical results appear to be finally showing up in lower gasoline consumption and a distaste for large cars and light trucks. According to a report in the May 5 issue of Business Week, the number of vehicles on the roads dropped 1.4 percent last year, and gasoline consumption is expected to dip 0.7 percent this year. Sales of SUVs and pickup trucks plummeted 27 percent in the first quarter of 2008, with total auto sales down 8 percent.

The fundamental question, for consumers, business leaders, and policymakers, is whether oil and gasoline prices will continue to trend upward and stay there, or whether the current situation is just a blip. If high prices are here to stay, then of course those who replace their big cars with smaller ones sooner will come out ahead of the game, and those automakers who anticipate that behavior will be the winners. Ford Motor, which reported a surprisingly large first-quarter profit last week, is reported to be among those betting that high prices are here to stay [and General Motors has now adopted the same philosophy].

Ironically, if gasoline prices stay in the stratosphere, the United States may be off the hook when it comes to the atmosphere. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that if one wanted to halve carbon emissions from the U.S. automotive sectorâ''enough to get the country into step with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases [without doing anything else]â''gasoline prices would have to double from their average levels in the early part of this decade, which have been around $2.50. That calculus underlay a blue-ribbon report sponsored by Princetonâ''s Woodrow Wilson School last year, which recommended increasing gasoline prices by $2.50 per gallon over a period of 10 years, as a matter of policy.

If the global oil market were to drive prices to $5 anyway, and American consumers start to believe theyâ''re really gong to stay there, thenâ''arguably!â''policy wonâ''t be necessary. [Would not be necessary, that is, to get the United States into step with the Kyoto regime, which it first embraced but then repudiated.] Over time, if econometric studies are to be believed, American drivers [at $5/gallon] will spontaneously use half as much gasoline and emit half as much carbon.

French Taxpayers Flip the Bill for Nanotechnology Consortium

While the European Commission may not object to the French government handing over â'¬46 million to an industrial consortium of 17 partners led by French chemical company Arkema Group in order to establish the GENESIS R&D programme, French taxpayers may like to have a few words about providing financial support to what the EC describes as a financial outlay â''designed in particular to compensate for market failure, given the substantial risks which the project entails.â''

In the US financial support from the government for nanotechnology comes through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and goes to research institutes in particular research areas, i.e. energy, electronics, etc.

I am trying to imagine if it is within the realm of possibility that companies like DuPont or Dow could get government funding to start up an industrial consortium of companies devoted to applying nanotechnology to market sectors, simply to minimize the risk of the venture.

The â''trickle-downâ'' theory, I suppose, is that if the consortium is successful there may be some jobs for the Frenchâ'¿and other Europeans.

Of course, if the consortium discovers that its profit margins are too small, or worse its losses too great, and need to close Genesis down, then those potential employees are out of luck. But at least the financial hardship for the Genesis partners has been softened somewhat.

Despite Higher Costs Wind Rules Renewable Roost

If you ask how much renewables can contribute right now to reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependence, itâ''s really just one renewable that counts: wind. Photovoltaic electricity is still far from competitive commercially, and as for the restâ''thermal solar, geothermal, tidal energy, and so onâ''they only account for niche shares of the generation mix. Wind on the other hand already generates close to 1 percent of U.S. electricity and could provide as much as 20 percent by 2030, according to a recent government report.

That said, the gap between the installation costs of photovoltaic electricity and wind-generated electricity has narrowed some in the last couple of years, despite upward pressure on PV prices, mainly caused by sky-high demand in Germany. A recent report done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory confirms that higher wind installation prices account for the narrowing.

The LBL report finds that U.S. wind capacity increased 46 percent last year, amounting to a $9 billion investment. Wind installation costs, however, after dropping by about $2.7/Watt from 1982 to 2002â''from roughly $4.2/W to $1.5/Wâ''increased in recent years, plateauing at around $3/W. The main factor in the higher wind costs is the higher average cost of the turbines themselves, which has been driven up by the dollarâ''s depreciation, high global demand, an escalation in raw materials costs that has affected almost all power equipment, and more advanced turbine designs.

Even at the higher installation costs, the price of wind-generated electricity has remained highly competitive in the United States, admittedly in large part because of generous Federal and state subsidies. To arrive at a true estimate of relative prices, those subsidies have to be weighed against the almost incalculable and controversial environmental, social, and political costs of fossil fuels that do not show up in coal, oil, and natural gas prices.

LBLâ''s Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends can be downloaded at the labâ''s publication site.

Shuttle Arrives at Space Station with Key Part

Relief is on the way.

The space shuttle Discovery has docked at the International Space Station carrying the pressurized section of the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), a key component for the orbiting science platform.

But the Kibo laboratory is not the component that has the media buzzing. That distinction falls to a small replacement part dispatched to fix a malfunctioning zero-gravity toilet aboard the ISS.

Photo: NASA
THANKS FOR DROPPING BY: The crew of ISS Expedition 17 welcome colleagues from Discovery's STS-124 mission to their orbiting outpost--which has been experiencing a rather embarrassing problem recently.

According to NASA, the crew of mission STS-124 maneuvered Discovery into a back flip so that their Expedition 17 counterparts on the space station could take close-up photos of the underside of the shuttle to look for damaged thermal tiles before approaching and docking at the ISS at 2:03 pm EDST. The astronauts and cosmonauts opened the hatches of the two vehicles about two hours later to exchange greetings and get down to the business of their nine-day joint operations.

The main order of that business will be three spacewalks to attach the 17-ton Japanese Pressurized Module to the ISS. This is the second of three missions designed to assemble the JEM section of the space station. Once finished, the Japanese science lab will become the largest module on the orbiting platform, offering future visitors the opportunity to conduct space medicine, biology, material production, biotechnology, and communications research.

Still, it's that spare toilet pump that's grabbing all the attention. The loo aboard the space station is a Russian-made facility that consists of two devices that collect human waste. The balky unit in question is the one used to suction urine in weightlessness. A broken valve caused it to fail recently, forcing the male crew to turn to alternate methods of relieving themselves. The problem, while not mission critical, is a hygienic inconvenience (and likely personal annoyance) for the Expedition 17 cosmonauts and astronauts. The fix for the toilet should be a simple procedure once the new part is on board.

The crew of STS-124 will spend most of their working hours moving the new Kibo lab section from the shuttle's cargo bay to its position on the exterior of the ISS, relocating the lab's logistics module, which was installed in a temporary spot during the last STS mission, and then join the two together.

Discovery also delivered Canadian-born astronaut Greg Chamitoff to replace flight engineer Garrett Reisman as a station resident for the next six months.

Upon greeting one another over 200 miles above the planet, Chamitoff told Reisman, "You have a beautiful house." Now, it's a house that should soon have a properly working toilet.

Nanotechnologyâ¿¿s Role in the Dawning of the Singularity

One has to applaud Spectrum for taking on the subject of the Singularity in this monthâ''s special issue, â''Rapture of the Geeksâ''.

I imagine the magazine will face criticism from either side of the question, which makes the audacity of their project all the more awe inspiring.

All of the video interviews and interactive elements are not yet available online, but I will be checking back regularly for when they are.

In the meantime, I was pleased to see one of my favorite nanotech bloggers, Prof. Richard Jones of Soft Machines, has contributed to the articles with his â''Rupturing the Nanotech Raptureâ''.

It seems that Jones was given the charge â''to discuss both the prospects for nanotechnology contributing to a singularity on Kurzweilian time-scales, and what the actual achievements of nanotechnology were likely to be over that period.â''

The Kurzweilian period seems to be in about 15 years, and going by the nifty little chart â''The Singularity: Whoâ''s Whoâ'', Kurzweil is singularly alone in his optimistic time scale.

Setting aside definitions of what the Singularity was intended to mean, and what it has come to mean to those who have taken up its cause, Jones wades once again into the sticky topic of molecular nanotechnology, nano assemblers, and nanobots, all of which constitute the tools that Singularity proponents point to as enabling its approach.

As one might expect to those are familiar with Jones' book "Soft Machines", Jones puts aside the mechanosynthesis approach for providing a solution, at least in the short term, and turns attention to biological solutions (check sidebar the â''The Real Nanobotâ'').

However, according to Jones, having complete control of matter through software remains unattainable for generations to come. Nonetheless, we should not abandon the pursuit of more radical nanotechnology since it may lead to the â''true killer appâ'' that Jones describes as â''devices that integrate electronics and optics, fully exploiting their quantum character in truly novel ways.â''

In all itâ''s a deftly diplomatic piece, at once dispelling some of the myths surrounding the timeline for molecular nanotechnology contributing to the Singularity while both complementing and urging on the early pioneers of its concept.

Neuroscientist Tononi Confirms Bourne Identity Conceit

Yesterday, May 30, speaking at a panel held under the aegis of New York Cityâ''s first annual World Science Festival, Spectrum author Julio Tononi told an audience at the Museum of Modern Art that the Bourne Identityâ''s artistic conceit is not merely plausible but in fact completely credible. In the first film of the hugely successful Bourne triology, Jason Bourne turns out to be a former remorseless CIA assassin. Though at the outset he has no memory of who he is or his life history, he has, inexplicably to him and the attractive but flakey German woman he has picked up while running for his life, the entire skill set that a top-level international hit man would be expected to have.

Yesterdayâ''s MOMA panel brought together Bourne director Doug Liman, a film scholar and script writer who served as moderator, and Tononi, an Italian-born psychiatrist and neuroscientist, now at the University of Wisconsin. Disarmingly, director Liman said that when he conceived and developed the Bourne films over eight years, he considered Bourneâ''s special kind of amnesia a fictional device and did not really care whether it had any basis in reality. But Tononi told of a patient presented to him when he was doing his medical residency in Italy: a geography teacher, the man woke up one day with no idea who he was, what his life story was, or who his wife was; however, he could effortlessly recite every important town and city in Italy, along with a wealth of other information any geography teacher would be expected to have at his fingertips.

Every panelist at the near-capacity MOMO event had something of interest to say. Moderator James Schamus talked about a late-Fifties movie, Three Faces of Eve, which was based on a real woman with three separate personalities; without skipping a beat, Tononi, threw up a slide of the Eve movie poster, saying that in cases of multiple personalities, separate regions of the brain light up in a scan, as the person switches from one personality to another. The director talked about how he had taken a â''Republicanâ'' novel, in which the Soviet assassins were bad guys and the American assassins good guys, and turned it into a â''Democraticâ'' movie in which all the assassins were bad; when asked whether Bourne was â''guiltyâ'' of the murders he committed, Liman said without hesitation that of course he was. Tononi, however, pointed out that there have been cases of sleepwalkersâ''a situation in which one is conscious but not self-conscious and arguably not responsibleâ''who have committed crimes, even in at least one case a murder, and been acquitted.

The MOMA panel basically was set up to be Tononiâ''s show, and so he canâ''t be accused of having stolen it. But if it had been necessary for him to steal itâ''letâ''s say he showed up at the panel without any notion of who he was and where he was, but soon discovered that inexplicably he knew way more about the brain than anybody else in the roomâ''he would have effortlessly run away with the event.

At the outset and through much of the discussion, Tononi talked mainly about how highly compartmentalized the brain is. But at the end, he took everybody a little by surprise with an eloquent statement about how the brain is subtly or not so subtly changed by every single thing it takes in, and how the whole is affected by changes in the parts, modifying our character for ever; he advised us, gently, to make better friends with our brains. It was a surprisingly spiritual statementâ''and got an approving nod from director Liman as well as many in the audienceâ''coming from a man who argues in the current issue of IEEE Spectrum that some day, in fact, machines will achieve full consciousness.

Spectrumâ''s June special issue, â''Rapture of the Geeks,â'' explores the question of whether supersmart machines will ever be smart enough to make us humans obsolete.


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