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Nanotechnology IQ Test with an iPod at Stake

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In an attempt to promote their newly designed website, the Project on Emerging Technology, which has established itself as a sort of nanotech watchdog, is running a five-question â''Nano-IQâ'' test and from those who take the test five free iPod Nanos will be randomly distributed.

I suppose that it doesnâ''t strike anyone as odd that an iPod Nano is the prize for the test. The â''Nanoâ'' tag on the smaller version of the iPod has confused many, and its connection to nanotechnology could be considered by some as tenuous at best since the tie is mainly based on the use of giant magnetoresistance (GMR). This blog provided a link to the whole controversy back in August.

Not done with just making the prize an iPod Nano, one of the five questions also involves discerning whether iPods are an application of nanotechnology. Hereâ''s a hint: to the folks at Project for Emerging Technology it does.

Some in the nanotech blog community have begun to question whether the Project on Emerging Technology has too much to gain by ensuring that the higher the number of consumer products that contain nanotechnology, the greater the public alarm, and greater the need to turn to the Project for assistance.

The â''Nano-IQâ'' test beyond its promotional qualities is designed somehow to educate the populace on nanotechnology. This is a matter of great concern to the Project based on the findings of a poll they conducted back in September in which penetrating insights were discovered such as â''Individuals with less education and lower incomes are least likely to have heard about nanotechnology.â''

I guess no one cared to point out that individuals with less education and lower incomes probably know less about the production of organic foods. But I guess that is not as much of a threat to society as them knowing less about nanotechnology.

Out of Africa: Pebble bed nuclear reactors?

South Africa's painful electricity shortages suggest that the wealthiest country on the African continent is a technological laggard. That's not so. Indeed, despite the well-publicized woes of Eskom, the national electricity supplier, South Africa is an exception to the general rule that sub-Saharan Africa is impoverished scientifically and technology, at least in the realm of originality.

In the case of South Africa, the legacy of European immigration and the now-dismantled apartheid regime meant that the country maintained an active and dynamic scientific and engineering sector. Because of trade sanctions, South African technologists tended to create their own versions of everything, including nuclear weapons.

While the country dismantled its weapons when the apartheid system collapsed in 1994, South Africa remains a leader in nuclear power, owning much of the intellectual property for an exciting new approach to reactor design called "pebble bed." The country also has two operating nuclear reactors that provide 6% of the country's electricity. Uranium is also mined from South Africa.

Westinghouse, the leading American producer of nuclear reactors (and now owned by the Japanese), is part owner of the South Africa research entity devoted to commercializing the pebble-bed concept. The design approach, which is considered inherently safer and more economical than existing reactor designs, is also being tested in the U.S. and China.

South Africa's government said earlier this year that it plans to fund the construction and operation of as many as 24 pebble-bed reactors relying on its home-grown designs. The rollout would be the world's largest of its type, and evidence of continued strength of South African energy technology. The technology behind pebble bed was originally developed in Germany, but when the Germans shut off funding for nuclear energy development in their own country they sold off their innovations.

At the time of South Africa's purchase more than a decade ago, pebble bed looked like a useless curiosity but the revival of nuclear energy in general has cast a new light on the value of South Africa's nuclear expertise. And so has the country's electricity shortage.

[By the way, Spectrum featured an article by J. Weil in 2001 about pebble-bed reactor technology]

SAE Hybrid Vehicle Tech: GM uses real-world data

San Diego--Greetings from southern California, where the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is holding its Hybrid Vehicle Technologies Symposium.

As we did from EVS in December, we'll bring you news, impressions, and thoughts as we go through two days of presentations from major automakers, regulators, and industry analysts.

One of the more intriguing presentations on the conference agenda is called "Driving the Volt," by Peter Savagian. He's director of engineering for GM hybrid powertrains. In other words, the man's got a lot of toys in his sandbox at the moment.

Everyone wants to know what it's like to drive the engineering prototypes, or "mules," of the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt that GM has said it will launch at the end of 2010. It'll be the first production serial hybrid: It will run up to 40 miles (64 km) on its lithium-ion battery pack alone, and then a small engine will run a generator to recharge the batteries for another 300 miles (480 km)--but not directly power the wheels.

I was lucky enough to chat with Pete last night. His paper will have two main thrusts, he said: First, what is driving GM to build the Chevrolet Volt? Groan. OK, fine, GM deserves a chance to present its slides showing growth in the "global car park" and the technologies it plans to use to increase energy independence, reduce consumption, and begin to electrify the fleet.

Second, and far more interesting: What will the Volt be like to drive in the real world? And for this, he revealed, GM is using a new and different set of real-world data, recently gathered from actual Southern California drivers in actual cars.

What's the bottom line? It's that the driving cycles GM is using to benchmark the Volt are tough. Much tougher than the regulatory cycles used by the US Environmental Protection Agency for fuel-economy or emissions testing. And very, very different indeed from those of economy-focused Prius drivers who keep their car in electric mode as long as possible and compare mileage figures like baseball stats.

Why is this data set so significant? Because, like other sprawling suburban areas connected by freeways and six-lane arterials, southern California lends itself to a rapid mix of high-speed driving and bursts of stop-and-go traffic--and its drivers are impatient. As such, it's much more reflective of how average US drivers behave. That's critical for a mass manufacturer like GM, launching a radical electric vehicle like the Volt under its main brand, Chevrolet.

What, asked Savagian, was the median freeway speed from actual SoCal driving data? I guessed 81 miles per hour (130 km/h). I was slightly low; the answer was 83 mph (133 km/h). Or, as he said solemnly, "drivers in LA turned out to be very, ahhhh, aggressive."

(Which is hardly a shock to anyone who's driven out here in the last, oh, 10 years. On my drive yesterday, I was tailgated by a guy in $400 sunglasses yelling on his cellphone while driving a brand-new 3-ton Cadillac Escalade SUV. A stereotype, but true.)

More to come as it happens. Iâ''ll be posting at least daily; if any readers have specific issues theyâ''d like me to comment on, please send me a note: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

Astronauts Open New Space Lab for Science

The long-delayed Columbus space laboratory is finally where it's supposed to be. Earlier today, two mission specialists from the European Space Agency (ESA), who last week flew aboard the Atlantis space shuttle, opened the hatches to the US $2 billion lab for the first time in its new home at the International Space Station (ISS).

According to NASA, ESA atronauts Leopold Eyharts and Hans Schlegel threw open the doors to the new lab at 9:08 am EST. Whereupon, Eyharts pronounced: "This is a great moment and Hans and I are very proud to be here and to ingress for the first time the Columbus module."

Yesterday, Walheim and Mission Specialist Stanley Love conducted a space walk to help connect the module to the rest of the ISS, after Atlantis's robotic arm had attached the 23-foot long lab to its mooring position. Crew members from the ISS and space shuttle will work over the next five days in space to integrate the module's systems into those of the ISS.

The addition of Columbus brings the number of modules on the space station to eight.

The lab had been scheduled for integration into the ISS for many years, but problems with both the shuttle and space station programs delayed the delivery of Columbus until this time.

NASA and ESA hope the science it produces in the future will be all worth the long wait.

(See our previous post Shuttle Carries Columbus Laboratory into Space for more on the mission of STS-122.)

The Agonies of an African Programmer

Last month during a brief stop in Nairobi, I tried to meet one of my oldest friends in Africa, Guido Sohne. The post-election riots were keeping him inside, however. â''I am not quite under house arrest,â'' he emailed me. But travel to the airport was too risky.

Sohne is another of those people that I think of as living in â''the Africa nobody knows,â'' people who should not exist if you never read past the screaming headlines about disaster, disease and mayhem in Africa. Sohne is a big brain, one of the most important codewriters in sub-Saharan Africa, and yet he is essentially invisible, too exceptional to demand the same attention given to Africaâ''s routine troublemakers.

For Sohne, who is in his early 30s, writing software remains the great technology hope for his region. Many young, educated Africans agree. With only a cheap laptop and a Web connection, young Africans can compete â'' seemingly on a level playing field â'' with the best of the rest in the world. With the press of their keyboard, they can obliterate distance and deliver their code to customers around the world.

That vision captivates Sohne, who is a forceful advocate for home-grown software. While his aspirations are typical, his story is unusual. Raised in Accra, Ghana, Sohne excelled in school, won admittance as an undergraduate to Princeton University and then showed his stubborn rebellious streak. He dropped out and returned to Ghana.

I first met Sohne five years ago at Busy Internet, the best Web café in West Africa. Sohne wrote software for nearly everyone in Accra, but he also was a forceful and intelligent advocate for African-made computer code. He spoke often on radio and at public meetings about the potential for information technology to lift his fellow Africans out of poverty and into the global mainstream. Partly because of his frenetic energy and his lack of concern for his physical appearance, he reminded me of a beat poet from the 1950s. To Westerners who visited Accra â'' notably the Internet philanthropist Ethan Zuckerman â'' Sohne became a legendary character, a compelling personality.

Sohne tried mightily to build open-source software organizations in Ghana and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. He certainly raised awareness of Linux and the importance of sharing code. As I pointed out in an essay of my own on Africaâ''s software community, sharing code ran counter to the proprietary impulses that arise in a â''scarcity economyâ'' where people worry that a pie that isnâ''t growing shouldnâ''t be shared at all.

Rather poignantly, Sohneâ''s activist efforts failed repeatedly. We even failed together; in 2003, we started an open-source community project that sputtered, then died, because too few people in Accraâ''s small community of programmers were willing, like Sohne, to donate their time.

Because he lacks a public body of work â'' and has never been appointed by an African government to any prestigious â''placeholderâ'' position -- Sohne seems like a digital ghost. He often writes impassioned, intelligent comments on tech â''threads,â'' and not always from an African perspective either. Around the world, across the reality of cyberspace, Sohne he cast a long shadow, one of a handful of African technologists who roams across the full spectrum of IT issues.

In recent months, Sohne has emerged from the shadows. Microsoft Corp. has hired him to work out of the companyâ''s Nairobi office. His job includes helping Microsoft interact with open-source consumers in Africa. The move to Microsoft says much about how the private sector can and does support talent in Africa. How Sohne balances his earnest commitment to Africaâ''s public welfare and Microsoftâ''s needs will be interesting to watch. But heâ''s already notched a big win â'' by reminding the world's software community that some of Africaâ''s best brains remain at home, animated by visions of future triumphs.

Virtual frog

My 7th grade frog dissection story: The girl next to me found her frog full of eggs, which were irresistible to the 7th grade boys, and they could not stop themselves from puncturing the formaldehyde-filled little sacks. As in any bad tween flick, the mess was soon all over a prissy girl's sweater. Then there was crying.

Never again! From fainting to throwing up to budding animal rights activism, all our war stories will now be abrogated by the V-frog, the world's first virtual-reality-based frog dissection software. Designed for grade 7-12 biology classes, it allows "not mere observation, but physically simulated dissection." V-frog, which was developed at the University of Buffalo Virtual Reality Lab spin-off Tactus Technologies, takes the act of dissecting a frog out of the messy biological realm and into cool, refreshing virtuality.

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You wield your V-scalpel on your V-frog by way of a personal computer and a standard mouse. But the software also lets you do things that you neither can do, nor would want to do, in reality.

"You can go through the entire alimentary canal, using the endoscopic function -- something you could never do with a real frog," says [Tactus president Kevin] Chugh. "Likewise, with our V-Frog, you can explore nerves and blood vessels, and look closely at how the brain is wired. Students would never get the opportunity to see and work with these things this way with a real frog."

The Humane Society is also on board, as virtual-reality frog dissection means no dead frogs to cart around the grade school and a much lower formaldehyde bill. No word yet on V-pig or V-earthworm. Stay tuned.

BlackBerry Service Outage Hits North America

Update: Service has been restored to "most users"--according to prominent media accounts such as this one--but the cause of the BlackBerry service malfunction has not been disclosed.

As of 3:30 pm EST, BlackBerry wireless communications service in North America has gone dark, according to a report from the Associated Press. Service provider AT&T told the AP that the outage is affecting all wireless carriers.

The Reuters news agency reports that Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian maker of BlackBerry smart phones, has sent e-mail to its customers that its service had experienced a "critical severity outage" on Monday.

"This is an emergency notification regarding the current BlackBerry Infrastructure outage," RIM support account manager Bryan Simpson said in the e-mail message, according to Reuters. He added in the note, that the service interruption affected users of the highly popular service throughout the Americas.

As of 6:00 pm EST, RIM had yet to post a statement on its company website.

The Reuters report notes that the e-mail note sent by RIM's Simpson made no mention of the cause of the outage or when service might be restored.

A similar service interruption occurred last April, leaving thousands of BlackBerry users without access to wireless e-mail. There is currently no information from RIM, either, as to how many of its customers are affected by today's disruption.

Plug-in hybrids win big in ZEV tweaks

Plug-in mania has an influential new fan: the California Air Resources Board, which looks set to elevate plug-ins several notches in its zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate.

The ZEV directive requires car manufacturers to market ultraclean and emissions-free vehicles (or buy credits earned by others making such vehicles). The California Air Resources Board unleashed intense lobbying this winter among battery EV start-ups, major automakers, hydrogen fuel-cell developers, and coalitions promoting plugâ''in hybrids when it promised to tweak the level of credits earned by various technologies. From the Air Resources Board staff proposal released late last week, plug-ins appear to be the big winners.

Presently the ZEV credit ratios favor fuel cells and offer relatively little help for plug-ins. The staff proposal would change this by enabling manufacturers to meet most of their ZEV requirements through 2014 with plug-in hybrids and hydrogen combustion vehicles. While not pure ZEVs like battery EVs and fuel cell vehicles, the California regulators bet that manufacture of plug-ins will yield components and infrastructure that will hasten the day when the pure EVs go mainstream.

"The goal continues to be to accelerate the development of pure ZEVs," says Air Resources Board member Daniel Sperling, director of the University of California, Davis, Institute of Transportation Studies. Sperling says promoting plug-in hybrids is the "only realistic way" to push car makers forward in light of the continued high cost of batteries and fuel cells.

Sperling and his fellow Air Resources Board members will take up the staff proposal after a public hearing in Sacramento scheduled for March 27-28.

Meanwhile, Arizona regulators seem to be feeling considerably more bullish about the viability of pure electrics. The Arizona Republic reports that Airzona's Department of Environmental Quality has drafted rules mandating that 11 percent of all cars sold in the state must be ZEVs from the 2011 model year. In 2018 the mandate would jump to 16 percent.

Brain on a Chip, DARPA-style

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At places like Janelia Farm (the "Bell Labs for neurobiology" run by Howard Highes Medical Institute) engineers are already trying to apply existing knowledge about the intricate wiring diagrams of integrated circuits to the inseparable mess of synapses that clogs our brains.

Now DARPA is joining the fray, to the tune of $3 million. In its $3.29 billion FY 2009 budget, the DOD's research wing specifies a program to make a chip that looks and acts like a brain (whether that's a human brain or a fruit fly brain remains to be specified). They're calling it Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE.

"The program will develop a brain inspired electronic 'chip' that mimics that function, size, and power consumption of a biological cortex," DARPA promises us. "If successful, the program will provide the foundations for functional machines to supplement humans in many of the most demanding situations faced by warfighters today" -- like getting usable information out of video feeds, and starting tasks.

Wired's Danger Room has much more, including (but not limited to) the proposed unmanned ambulance in the sky.

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