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The Over- and Under-Hype of RFIDs

The Wall Street Journal is throwing off mixed signals regarding RFIDs. On 30 October, it excoriated the technology, placing it under a â''Beware Hot Techâ'' banner. Yesterday, a mere 9 days later, the paper ran a long article, â''After Being Overhyped, RFID Starts to Deliver.â''

RFIDs, which are essentially small sensors embedded in or placed on goods or shipping cartons and containers, were supposed to be tracking all sorts of goods, and sometimes people, by now. So the first article cited the fact that fewer, logistics providers are testing or planning to use RFIDs than the year before, according to a Northeastern University survey. As well, in the tests that companies are doing, the technology is not robust enoughâ''95 percent accuracy, instead of 99.9 percent, according to a VP at Penske Corp. The tags themselves are still too expensive â'' 20 cents instead of 5.

The second article cites some other disappointing stats in the marketplace, such as the fact that the RFID market was about $2.5 billion in 2006, and only growing about 15 percent per year, far short of a 2002 Frost and Sullivan analyst prediction of a $7.25 billion market by 2008. It noted that WalMart withdrew a requirement it tried to impose on suppliers to start using RFID tags.

Such surveys and market analyses are best taken with enough salt to toss back a case of tequila, though, and the second article cited a number of encouraging signs. An influx of venture capital in 2002-2005 led to maturing companies with maturing technologies, even if the market for them is less than predicted. Essentially, what has happened is the WalMart initiative, and similar smaller ones from companies like Proctor & Gamble, spurred a bunch of investment, research, and inflated market predictions. In withdrawing the initiative, some of the air went out of the RFID tires, which WalMart had overinflated in the first place.

Meanwhile, as the second article notes, RFIDs are being quietly used on â''campuses, airports, prisons, semiconductor companies, and jet-engine manufacturers.â'' Spectrum discussed RFIDs as the centerpiece of an award-winning special report, â''Sensor Nation,â'' in July 2004. One particular article, â''Sensors and Sensibility,â'' said about RFIDs, â''Itâ''s alarming! It's no big deal! How your personal information is being collected and protected, used and misused.â''

This past March, we returned to the topic in a big way. In â''Hands On,â'' Amal Graafstra, an entrepreneur and geek based in Bellingham, Wash., described his experiences â''chippingâ'' himselfâ''inserting glass-enclosed RFID tags into his hands in order to keylessly unlock his car and the front door of his house.

Meanwhile, two other authors, Kenneth R. Foster and Jan Jaeger, examined â''The murky ethics of implanted chips,â'' and a blog entry described the useful, if grim process of using RFIDs to track corpses after Hurricane Katrina.

The idea of wirelessly and automatically tracking everything from shipping containers to razor blades, and people, incarcerated or free, living or dead, is inevitable. Like solar energy, RFIDs will succeed as a technology and a market, whether it takes 5 years or 25, and whether individual companies make or save money today with them. The Wall Street Journal is, of course, obsessed with the latter issue, but itâ''s the former one thatâ''s important to technologists.

Tired Shuttle Astronauts Return to Earth

With Commander Pamela Melroy at the controls, the Discovery orbiter touched down on the tarmac of Cape Canaveral today at 1:01 pm local time. By the time the space shuttle's wheels had rolled to a stop, the crew of the current mission, known as STS-120, had logged some 6.25 million miles in flight around the Earth. And in the words of the old joke, "Boy, were their wings tired."

After unbuckling from their seats, two of the crew had to be assisted from the spacecraft. For obvious reasons, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson, newly returned from a stay of nearly five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), could not find his land legs, a normal reaction after living in weightlessness so long. Somewhat puzzling, though, was the situation of Mission Specialist Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency, who also had to be helped off the shuttle and given medical attention. Nespoli had served as a consultant from Italy on the delivery of Discovery's main payload, the Italian-built Harmony crew portal.

According to an afternoon statement from NASA, both astronauts were receiving extra medical evaluation but said they were feeling fine.

The end of the 15-day mission closed a chapter on one of the most hectic missions in the long history of the shuttle transport system. The STS-120 crew had originally been tasked with making key upgrades to the ISS, such as attaching the Harmony module and deploying an extension to the portside solar-power array, but ran into some unexpected problems that taxed their efforts to the maximum (see our recent blog entry "Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place").

The other four returning astronauts under Melroy's command, Pilot George Zamka and Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski, Doug Wheelock, and Stephanie Wilson joined in the traditional post-flight inspection of Discovery and pronounced their vehicle to be in good shape.

"We could not have done this mission without Discovery being as clean and beautiful as it was," Melroy said on the runway. "I think the whole agency had to pull together for this particular mission. We saw a lot of very unusual things happen."

The STS-120 re-entry approach was a bit unusual this time. Mission controllers gave Discovery permission to fly across the continental United States, as opposed to the normal oversea pattern used by shuttles, because Melroy wanted to land during the day and to allow her crew to get some extra rest after such a long and arduous experience.

The work her crew had pulled off, despite the setbacks, put the effort to build the final components of the ISS in space back on schedule. It literally was a mission that was "one for the record books," as a NASA spokesperson said recently.

"It's a thrilling day for both the space shuttle and the space station programs," Melroy added. "We are thrilled to be back home."

File under: Nanotechnology Weirdness


There are a host of bizarre little articles that get written about nanotechnology by people for whom this is likely the first time they have heard the word.

Here is one that came across my desktop â''Light like an iPod in a Beautiful Sky. Thanks to Nanotechnologyâ''.

Even the title of the piece is odd, but here are some of the priceless quotes:

â''There will be probably only two choices: to forget and then invent the gadgets all over again or to change our directors [sic] towards nanotechnology, for example.â''

â''The nanotech is said to be able to replace the magnetic disk drives even in the tiny popular iPods, as well as in laptops and servers.â''

Yes, â''the nanotechâ'' is said to do a great many things.

It is one thing to give a nanotechnology-related article to a professional editor under deadline and get a few hiccups here and there. But is it really necessary to publish articles that appear as though they were written by a second grader or were translated from another language by some online program?

They, Robots

A recent internal newsletter here at the IEEE mentioned that we have the top-cited journal in the field of robotics.

â''IEEE Transactions on Roboticsâ'' is the top ranking journal in the robotics category in the 2006 â''Journal Citation Reportsâ'' with an impact factor of 1.763, the highest in this category. The impact factor is a calculated figure indicating the average number of times articles published in the previous two years are cited in the current year, 2006, in this case.

Here at Spectrum, we're proud of our robotics coverage as well. There's our popular Automation blog.

Current coverage includes a web-only piece, "Why Toddlers Love Robots,"

and an October feature, "Cracking GO," by Feng - Hsiung Hsu, who headed IBM's Deep Blue team before turning his attention to the even harder-to-automate ancient Japanese game.

Other feature articles include one of mine from August, "Robots, Incorporated,"

"Learn Like a Human: Why Can't a Computer be more Like a Brain?"

by Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm and Treo,

"Mom vs. Bomb," a profile of researcher Naomi Zirkind, who wants IEDs to kill only robots instead of human soldiers,

and two articles by senior editor Jean Kumagai,

"A Robotic Sentry For Korea's Demilitarized Zone,"

"Halfway to Mars," about the nextgeneration planetary rover.

The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, which publishes the Transactions on Robotics, can be found here.

Astronomers find a five-planet solar system in the Sunâ¿¿s backyard

Nov 6, 2007 -- Astronomers reported today that they have found a planetary system with five planets orbiting a nearby Sun-like star. The star, 55 Cancri, in the constellation of Cancer, was previously known to have 4 planets. The newest member of the 55 Cancri planetary system was discovered the same way the other four planets around 55 Cancri were found â'' inferring their presence from the wobble they introduce into the starâ''s motion.

â''We now know that our Sun and its family is not unusual,â'' said astronomer Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley at a NASA press conference earlier today.

The latest results are the culmination of a 18-year quest, the team of astronomers making the announcement reported. The first exoplanet around 55 Cancri was reported 11 years ago.

The fifth planet around 55 Cancri is about 45 times more massive than the Earth, which means it is somewhere larger than Neptune but less than Saturn in mass. It orbits its parent star in 260 days. Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, one of the team members making the announcement, speculated that the planet may look like â''a beefy Neptuneâ'' or even be like a â''Saturn with rings.â''

Telescopes on Earth cannot image the planets around other stars because of technological limitations. It is extremely hard to resolve a planet, which only reflects light from its parent star, next to the star itself, given how far even the nearest stars are from Earth. 55 Cancri, for instance, lies about 41 light years away. (A light year is the distance that light travels in 1 year, at the headlong speed of 300,000 kilometers per second.)

So, astronomers have resorted to using measurements of the motions of the stars to infer the existence of planets. It turns out that a planet will introduce a signature gravitational wobble into the starâ''s motion. The larger the planet, the more the wobble introduced. Conversely, the tiny wobble from a small planet is extremely hard to distinguish from detector noise. Thus, most planets found using this technique tend to be large.

The first exoplanet was found about 12 years ago. Since then, about 260 plus exoplanets have been discovered. However, there are very few multi-planet systems known. 55 Cancri is the only quintuple-planet system known; there is a star that is known to have four planets and some have three planets.

Astronomers are excited about the newest planet around 55 Cancri because it seems to lie in the habitable zone â'' an area around a star where temperatures are thought to be favorable to life. Although the planet itself is probably too massive to harbor life as we know it, it could have large moons that may be suitable for life. Astronomers also pointed out that there is a large gap around 55 Cancri where no planets have been found. This does not imply that there are no planets there, they said, just that the planets are too small to be detected using current technology. It is possible that an Earth-mass planet lurks in that gap, said Fischer.

Astronomer Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona summed up todayâ''s announcement, saying astronomers â''are beginning to move from finding lots of stars with planetsâ'' to finding real planetary systems like ours, something astronomers have suspected are fairly common.

â''The new planetary system is reminiscent of our own Solar System,â'' said Marcy.

The discovery had him â''jumping out of my socks,â'' he said.

For images and visualizations, see:

I voted touch screen today


I voted touch screen today. At one p.m., one of the five machines at my local polling place was already down. A screen failure, the poll worker reported, that happened about an hour after the polls opened.

The poll workers were not expecting a repeat of last Novemberâ''s debacle, in which printers ran out of paper and the machines locked up. (The paper is in a tamper proof housing and cannot be changed on site.) Not because a solution to the problem has been found, but because with only a few school board and city council seats in contention, voting today is extremely light.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, concerns about the accuracy of the machines that automatically count paper ballots means that each ballot will be reviewed by an election worker to make sure that the voter used a special black ink pen, and the results wonâ''t be reported for weeks.

How is high tech voting going in your part of the country?

Announcements of Nanotechnology Funding in India Keep Coming

There has been a recent spate of nanotechnology-related announcements coming out of India, including a new investment platform for new and emerging companies and a new facility at IIT Bombay donated by Applied Materials.

Contained within the former announcement is reference to the Indian government starting a five-year national mission called the Nano Science and Technology Mission (NSTM) with an upfront investment of Rs 1,000 crore (US$254,322,838), which translates to nearly $51 million for each year of the plan.

This seems to be a strong and competitive investment, but anyone paying attention to nanotechnology in India will recall that the last bit of appropriated funds (Rs 200 crore for the 2005-2006 budgets) for the NSTM went largely unspent as chronicled on this blog .

What seems to be missing in all of these new announcements is some plan to not let the mistakes of the recent past happen again. Itâ''s fairly easy to pick a number for funding, but actually spending it (never mind wisely) seems to be the problem.

Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place

After nearly 11 days, the crew of the Discovery orbiter undocked this morning from the International Space Station, leaving the ISS a better place than they found it.

At 5:32 am EST, Pilot George Zamka backed the orbiter about 400 feet from the ISS and performed a fly-around to allow crew members to collect imagery of the station in its new configuration, according to NASA. That configuration includes the newly attached Harmony portal and a newly deployed solar power array. Both were primary tasks of the complicated mission known as STS-120. As NASA administrators said in recent days of the assignment, it was "one for the record books."

The STS-120 crew already had a challenging agenda on its hands when it docked with the space station on 25 October. They were scheduled to: load the 16-ton Harmony utility hub; connect the P6 portside truss segment and extend its solar-cell wing; examine a malfunctioning starboard solar-panel rotary joint; deliver Mission Specialist Daniel Tani, the newest ISS crew member, and pick up his returning counterpart, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson; and perform an experiment in space to test damage repair techniques on the shuttle's exterior. They were initially tasked with making five spacewalks over nine days to accomplish the technical chores.

However, the schedule began to unravel on Sunday, 28 October, when Tani opened the housing of the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint and found metallic debris adhering to it (see our previous entry "Spacewalkers Carry On Despite New Glitch"). That's when things got a little dicey. In order to investigate the problem with the rotary joint, which keeps the starboard solar wings oriented toward the sun, NASA managers re-jiggered STS-120's priorities. The mission was extended a day, the spacewalks were reduced from five to four, the shuttle repair experiment was scrapped, and emphasis was placed on the demands of the port and starboard solar array work.

That's when the next shoe dropped. While deploying the P6 4B solar array, the material holding the delicate solar cells snagged on a guide wire and ripped in two spots, forcing ground controllers to halt the maneuver in place in order to come up with a workaround (see our previous entry "Space Station Woes Affect Shuttle Schedule"). Yesterday, Mission Specialist Scott E. Parazynski performed a daring spacewalk to repair the damaged but electrically active solar wing (which took him further from a spacecraft than anyone had ever attempted).

With the portside solar wing repaired and deployed and the starboard rotator joint further examined (with debris samples collected for analysis), NASA administrators decided the crew of STS-120 had done enough to chalk up a resoundingly successful mission and gave them the green light to head home. They are now scheduled to attempt to land at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday afternoon.

This flight to the ISS was initially publicized as an historic meeting between the first two spacecraft commanders who happen to be women, Commander Pamela A. Melroy and Commander Peggy Whitson, skippers of the shuttle and station, respectively (see our recent entry "Women Set to Take Charge of Space"). The circumstances that soon arose, however, changed the focus of the storyline to one in which astronauts and cosmonauts had to exercise quick thinking, imagination, and courage to solve problems on the fly to save the day.

It didn't matter what gender they were in the end. Both crews exhibited the "right stuff" when the going got tough, following in a long tradition. Congratulations are due to both teams.

Internet Buzz, the gPhone, and the Open Source Software of â¿¿The Open Handset Allianceâ¿¿

By last week, the anticipatory crescendo of speculation and rumors about a mythical gPhone had taken on such a fevered pitch that hardly anything Google announced today could be expected to live up to the hype (Gizmodo even posted a play-by-play of the conference call). Rather than introducing a new handset capable of bringing the (legally questionable) iPhone to its knees, Google announced the formation of The Open Handset Alliance, a group of companies that includes headset manufacturers like Motorola and LG, mobile operators like Sprint and T-Mobile, software companies, and chip manufacturers. They'll work on developing Android, what they promise will be â''the first complete, open, and free mobile platform.â''

An open and free mobile platform would allow the same kind of 3rd party innovation we've benefited from in computer software, paving the way for customized phones that go beyond the sixteen possible buttons on an iPhone. Now that the gPhone hype bubble has burst bloggers, journalists, and telecom insiders are trying to dissect what it all means (except those still waiting for an actual gPhone).

Companies outside the alliance (conspicuously including American carriers AT&T and Verizon) have tried to brush off importance of the announcement. According to the Times Online, Arun Sarin, the head of Vodafone, asked, â''What is it that is missing in life that they [Google] are going to fulfill?â''

Over at, the Machinist Blog has a good answer:

At the moment your phone is a jail cell. It could be, depending on your model, a very nice jail cell -- the Apple iPhone is like Martha Stewart's jail cell. Still though, you can't get out. You can't do what you want. You're locked in by carriers, by handset manufacturers, and by software companies to using only approved programs in an approved way.

Worse than that, there aren't many things to do on the phone anyway, because there isn't really a software industry devoted to building programs for such devices. Why should there be if all the users are in jail?

Back in August, IEEE Spectrumâ''s Steven Cherry expained Googleâ''s hope that the 700 MHz band would â''require that any owner allow any device onto their network, and that any application be allowed to run on those devices.â'' It sounds like the Open Handset Alliance will be the next step towards those goals.

In liberating phones, it looks like Google wonâ''t even take the credit by branding any particular headset a â''gPhoneâ'' (as reported in the San Jose Mercury News):

Instead, the big news is that Google has gone generic, offering free software to anyone who wants it under the relaxed terms of an open-source license, which will allow developers to view the source code for that software. This also means there will not be a "gPhone," or any sort of phone with the Google brand on it.

Unlike Microsoft Windows or Internet Explorer, the mobile operating system and browser built by Google will not carry its brand. Indeed, it's possible that people who buy the new phones will have no idea that Google is behind their gadgets.

But just because Google will be giving away the software operating system software for free, itâ''s not an act of charity. According to Forbes, Android will give Google more of a user base to expose to its ads:

Ninety-nine percent of Google's revenues come from ads, either the ones it puts next to free Internet-based services like search and e-mail, or through syndication on third-party Web pages. The bigger the Internet gets, Google executives figure, the more pages there are for ads and the more people will need search (with more ads) to find anything.

Iâ''m skeptical that this is a really great ideaâ''have you ever noticed how small a cell phone screen is? Mine can barely describe the barebones information that makes web surfing valuable, and the last thing Iâ''d want to give up is pixel real estate for ads I donâ''t want. What I will tolerate on a twenty-inch monitor is very different from what Iâ''ll allow on my phone.


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