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The RFID invasion gets Cosmic

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Remember the first microprocessor to enter your home? It probably arrived tucked inside a calculator. But it seemed only moments before there were more microprocessors in your life than you could count.

Right now RFID, at least in my life, is on that cusp, between the first couple of tags to walk through the door (on four legs each, we chipped our cats) and the explosion into ubiquity.

The coolest RFID gizmo I've seen? An RFID toy (six tags plus a reader) my son got for his ninth birthday: Cosmic Catch.

Forget electronic wallets and product tracking tags for Walmart. Forget Fast-Tracks and Easy Passes. Itâ''s the toy business that is making the most creative use of RFID technology. (Guess that was true in the early days of microprocessors as well; remember Speak N Spell?)

Cosmic Catch wasnâ''t the first RFID toy on the market; that honor either went to the Little Tikes MagicCook Kitchen or Bandaiâ''s Naoru-kun dollâ''both used sensors in toy food and other accessories to trigger comments. Not particularly revolutionary.

But Cosmic Catch wowâ''d me because it is a toy that would not be possible without RFID technology. It comes with six colored bands that go around childrenâ''s palms, these contain the sensors, and a rubberized ball, this holds the reader and batteries. It is programmed for several games. In the simplest, and my favorite, one child starts out holding the ball, and the synthesized voice announces â''throw to redâ'' â''throw to yellowâ'' â''throw to blueâ'' etc. Throw to the wrong person, and it emits an exploding sound, then announces the number of successful completions. Simple, addictive fun, and not possible without RFID (OK, one could have a parent up on a ladder acting as the omniscent judge, but the best thing about this gizmo is that nobody complains that a ball is playing favorites or being unfair).

A Hasbro spokesman told me they have a second RFID toy on the marketâ''the hyperslide, a version of tabletop footballâ''and more are likely to come. For now, though, Iâ''m going to savor this moment in history when RFID is more cool than commonplace.

Lunar X Prize Still Up For Grabs: Can Competitions Actually Produce Successful Spacecraft?

In the New Mexico desert on Saturday, failure took the form of a fireball shredding the rocket engine of MOD, a spacecraft that resembles a metal snowman perched on a tripod. It was the final straw in what John Carmack, the creator of the video game DOOM, who funded the attempt, called "officially a bad day." His team, Armadillo Aerospace, have been working on vertical take-offs and landings for several years, and they were the only one of nine registered groups to even make an attempt. He told Will Pomerantz, the director of space projects for the X Foundation, that "this feels worse than last year," when Armadillo also came up short.

It seems like R & D contests are all the rage right now, but for spectators they're hard to watch. Would many people watch a NASCAR race where no cars made it to the finish line?

The Northrop Grumman Lunar X Prize is a contest modeled on the Ansari X Prize won by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne last year. There are similar challenges for everything from energy-efficient cars to light-weight tethers and wireless power transmitters. They're attractive to the government agencies like NASA because private industry takes on the initial risky investment, which often costs more than the prize money is worth.

Like Spaceship One's early successes, The Armadillo Aerospace team has had some promising tests this summer. Even at Holloman Airforce Base on Saturday, they had glimmering moments. The Level 1 challenge, worth $350,000, first requires the spacecraft to rise 50 meters into the air, travel 100 meters horizontally, and land safely. The team ably made that trip twice. But the second part of the challenge required them to pilot MOD back to the original launch pad. On this second leg of their third attempt of the day, the rocket motor failed and MOD fell to the ground. When the team tried substituting the engine from their larger Pixel vehicle, it burst into flames, ending the day on a fiery note (see the video of the attempts here).

In a recent Spectrum interview on Sputnik's 50th anniversary, Arthur C. Clarke talked about his support for private-enterprise space endeavors:

CLARKE: During 2006, I followed with interest the emergence of this new breed of â''Citizen Astronautsâ'' and private space enterprise. Before the current decade is out, fee-paying passengers will be experiencing sub-orbital flights aboard privately funded passenger vehicles, built by a new generation of engineer-entrepreneurs with an unstoppable passion for space. (Iâ''m hoping I could still make such a journey myself). And over the next 50 years, thousands of people will gain access to the orbital realmâ''and then, to the Moon and beyond.

The Ansari X PRIZE changed the future of personal spaceflight when it inspired the creation of SpaceShipOne by Burt Rutan. Now the Google Lunar X PRIZE can encourage a new fleet of private spacecraft to take humanity back to the Moon. I have endorsed and backed both these efforts as excellent ways to catalyze private investment and citizen involvement in space.

It would be easy to use the second year of Lunar X Prize failure and other winnerless challenges (like DARPA's Mojave race) to claim that some things are best left to government research. But doing so overlooks the fact that making cars that drive themselves or precision rocket engines is really hard, no matter who does it. Even in the Cold War space race, the best technicians and engineers in the USSR and the United States accidentally blew up rockets left and right.

For such risky endeavors it makes sense for NASA to distance themselves from such inevitable explosions, if only to avoid the public relations fallout that accompanied both space shuttle disasters. Controlling rocket engines is a bit like taming lions: as Sigfried and Roy could tell you, having all the experience in the world doesn't make it safe.

Spacewalkers Carry On Despite New Glitch

It's always something on space missions.

A spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday revealed that the orbiting platform's new starboard solar array has problems with the unit that it aligns it with the sun. Astronaut Daniel Tani, performing his first major task as a member of the new ISS crew, Expedition 16, found what appear to be metal particles in the well of a joint that controls the movement of the solar panels on the right side of the ISS. The starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, installed only four months ago, may be responsible for recent spikes in electricity from the starboard solar array. NASA engineers speculate that the metallic debris may be the result of a poor fit in the bearings or rings of the joint in the cold of space.

The astronauts of the docked Discovery have replacement parts onboard should the U.S. space agency decide to add another spacewalk to the already hectic schedule of the current mission, known as STS-120. In the meantime, the crew of the ISS has shut down the balky rotator joint to try to limit any further damage. While this is not a serious problem in the short run, as the station has plenty of power to maintain all its present systems, it does need to be addressed as soon as is practical, as future modules bound for the ISS, such as the European Columbus and the Japanese Kibo laboratories, will need full power to operate. Today, mission control administrators are mulling the option of extending the stay of Discovery for an extra day to perform the repair work.

Pushing on with their itinerary, nonetheless, the STS-120 crew today got down to some heavy lifting in zero gravity, using the station and shuttle robotic arms to move a portside truss segment to the end of a previously connected truss, both of which will house the giant solar array component on the left side of the ISS, according to NASA. Tomorrow, STS-120 Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock will step out into space to connect the two trusses. They will also conduct an inspection of the port rotator joint to compare its condition to the malfunctioning starboard one.

When your 200 miles above the surface of the earth, it's always the little things that manage to give you headaches.

The iPhoneâ¿¿illegal in California?

Phthalates, a group of chemicals mixed into plastics to increase flexibility, are regulated in California. They are hormone disrupters, a particularly nasty thing for children or women planning to have children. Products containing phthlates have to post this:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

And this month the California Governor signed a law that will completely ban phthalates from products intended for children. That law goes into effect in 2009. Such products are already illegal in San Francisco.

Enter the iPhone. Earlier this month Greenpeace published an analysis of the iPhoneâ''s internal and external components, and found all sorts of nasty things, including phthalates (check out this video).

Based on that report, the Center for Environmental Health gave Apple the required 60-day notice that it will be filing a lawsuit against the company; itâ''s hoping to pressure Apple into a negotiated settlement that will reduce the use of the chemicals. Apple hasnâ''t yet responded the Center, however, Apple reiterated its promise to clean up its products by the end of 2008 by removing brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, the plastic that contains the phthalates. (Nokia products are already PVC free, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have removed brominated flame retardants from their products.)

For now, donâ''t let your kids get their hands on an iPhone.

Maker Faire Highlights: Human Powered Vehicles

It's been a week since the Maker Faire in Austin, Texas, and I still have some great video from the event. Everywhere you looked, people were pedaling contraptions that made the average bicycle look boring. Best of all was the Big Wheel: imagine rolling around in a red, yellow, and blue, hand-made ferris wheel, and you're not too far off.

Each of the three riders has a pair of pedals connected to a naked chain (I had to roll up my jeans to avoid getting maimed). It was soon easy to see why I had to sign a waiver. As you pedal forward, the chain turns a gear, which (in theory) moves the huge wheel. All this is complicated the fact that the seats swing back and forth, making it hard to even keep you feet on the pedals. Check out the video-I was just glad to hang onto the camera.

Forward Bias

October 26, 2007

This week's theme: Matching-- in Space

Match the people to the space-related activities they undertook this week. Show all work.

1.Started negotiations with Lockheed to be first commercial spaceport.A.China
2.

Started a space-based matchmaking service.

B.Russia
3.Hosting the $2 million Wirefly X-Prize Cup.C.Nova Scotia
4.Launched three navigation satellites to rival GPSD.New Mexico
5.Shot the moon
..
E.Women

6.Ruled outer space

F.Space Angels
..

..

Dutch Team Wins Solar Race Across The Outback

The University of Delft's solar car raced across the finish line in Adelaide, having just driven 3000 kilometers across the Australian outback. The car was doing top speeds during the last two hours, maintaining a solid 110 kilometers per hour as they raced to beat the sunset. Traffic grew denser as the team entered the outskirts of Adelaide after five days in the desert, and the little race car routinely overtook regular traffic as it approached the end of what has been a long, dusty, and grueling journey.

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It was a spectacular end to a very long day of driving. The team covered about 750 kilometers on Thursday, and lucky for them only one flat tire pulled them off the road for two minutes.

The previous day, a strong and continuous crosswind put extra stress on the left side of the car and damaged the suspension. That day, the team replaced four flat tires in the span of three hours, causing great concern among the car's young support crew, but a few hours of repair that evening seemed to have fixed the problems.

A team from Belgium, Umicore, and Aurora, an Australian team, are staggered about 30 to 40 minutes apart behind the Dutch car, Nuna, and are expected to arrive in Adelaide soon. A surprise finish is expected from the University of Michigan, whose solar car was damaged in a crash in Darwin mere minutes into the race. Rumor has it that the Michigan team is back in the top 6 cars, which would be a very impressive finish for a vehicle that was delayed one entire day from leaving Australia's Top End, as they stayed behind in Darwin to fix the panels and car body. It may even turn out that Michigan's car was the fastest on the road. But speed is just one component in solar car racing: strategy and luck are just as important.

Meeting in Space Is an Historic Moment

Shortly after the Discovery orbiter docked with the International Space Station (ISS), the commanders of the two spacecraft weightlessly exchanged enthusiastic hugs. It was an historic occasion. Never before have women served as the commanding officers of two ships in space. For Pamela Melroy and Peggy Whitson, though, it was business as usual, more than 200 miles above the earth.

According to NASA, the crews of the two vehicles opened their docking hatches at 10:39 a.m. EDT today. One of the first significant tasks was the ISS crew rotation. STS-120 Mission Specialist Daniel Tani switched places with Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson, who wrapped up a four-month tour of duty on the space station. Tani will stay on the ISS until he returns with mission STS-122 in December.

Tani officially became a member of Expedition 16 when his custom-made seat liner was swapped out with Andersonâ''s in the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station. Discovery also delivered the Harmony module, which will be attached to the station Friday as part of STS-120's record five scheduled spacewalks.

Prior to the docking procedure today, Whitson rang a ship's bell onboard the space station, following a long naval tradition of greeting another ship approaching. "Discovery arriving," she announced, as the two vessels sailed 212 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

[See our recent posts in Tech Talk on the space shuttle and space station commanders.]

UN: Foreign direct investment largest since 2000

According to the United Nations' 2007 World Investment Report, published on 16 October, global foreign investment inflows amounted to US $1,306 billion in 2006, which is a 38 percent increase over 2005 and comes close to the record-setting $1,411 billion of 2000.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development ranked the worldâ''s top 100 non-financial TNCs by foreign assets.

Of the top 100 TNCs, 58 belonged to six industries: motor vehicles (11), petroleum (10), electrical and electronic equipment (10), pharmaceuticals (9), telecommunications (9), and electricity, gas and water services (9).

I've pulled out only that small sliver of TNCs that are in the electrical and electronic equipment industry. You can find the full table at the UNCTAD site (be warned: itâ''s a PDF, and youâ''ll find the full table on page 229).

RankingCorporationHome economyForeign affiliates
1General ElectricUnited States1184
18Siemens AGGermany877
30IBMUnited States380
39Sony CorporationJapan233
41Hewlett PackardUnited States249
44 Philips ElectronicsNetherlands337
66Hitachi LimitedJapan356
85 Matsushita Electric Industrial CompanyJapan288
87 SamsungRepublic of Korea76
92 LG Republic of Korea42

With the possible exception of Samsung, these are all huge conglomerates, and some are pretty much cradle-to-grave companies for their products. Some of the biggest names in chipsâ''like Intel, Infineon, AMD and Micronâ''who are not conglomerates are notably absent from the list.

The report estimates that the sales, value added and exports of the worldâ''s approximately 78,000 transnational corporations (TNCs) accounted for 10 percent of world GDP and one-third of world exports.

Californiaâ¿¿s firefighters get a little help from a friend

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Yesterday NASAâ''s Ikhana remotely piloted aircraft took to the skies to help firefighters struggling to contain the many fires burning in southern California. The plane carried a scanning system built by NASAâ''s Ames Research Center, the Autonomous Modular Sensor-Wildfire, which records images in multiple wavelengths, and therefore is not blinded by smoke.

The hardware hangs in a 180-kg pod under the aircraft, as visible in the photo below, taken yesterday with smoke from the Lake Arrowhead fire in the background. 194165main_ED07-0243-36.jpgNASA has been conducting demonstration flights of the technology throughout this fire season; it got involved yesterday at the request of the California Governorâ''s office. Eventually, NASA hopes, the sensing system will be a regular part of a firefighters arsenal.

But for the hordes of firefighters attacking the southern California fires, the future is now. The images gathered aboard Ikhana during its ten hours aloft yesterday were processed on board and sent via satellite to a server at NASA Ames. NASA team members assigned to fire command camps throughout the affected area, helped firefighters access the image data through special web sites, for example, in the top photo of the Harris Fire in San Diego County, hot spots along the ridgeline are clearly visible.

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