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SmartGrid Leader's Preemptive Strike At Patent Gamesters

U.S. patent law provides no shortage of pitfalls for innovators -- a story Spectrum has tracked closely over the years (for a recent roundup see Keeping Score in the IP Game). Electric power utility Southern California Edison (SCE) -- one of the leaders in the development of smart metering -- isn't waiting for trouble. To ensure that IP shenanigans can't freeze innovation in smart metering, SCE decided to file a sort of defensive patent claim on behalf of the entire industry.

Paul De Martini, SCE's VP for Advanced Technologies and one of the 'inventors' on the claim, explained the move in an interview yesterday with industry newsletter Smart Grid News. The filing broadly covers the business practice of using Advanced Metering Infrastructure or AMI to communicate between a utility and its customers -- a bidirectional exchange that is widely expected to boost the quality and efficiency of electric power systems. De Martini says that SCE and other utilities have been held hostage by patent infringement claims for pre-AMI technology and wanted to ensure the same would not occur with AMI. Should SCE's patent be granted, he says the company will extend a worldwide nonexclusive royalty-free license to anyone interested.

SCE is also supporting an effort by IEEE, EPRI, and others to develop a SmartGrid Open Source Repository to push new AMI concepts into the open domain.

If you want it from the horse's mouth, read SCE's presentation on Open Innovation. SCE is also soliciting comments via, and will be presenting a web-based news conference on the move on September 19th.

More on China-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation

This one is for the geeks. Last week I reported on an article in the latest issue of Physics Today magazine, written by a former senior defense official in close collaboration with a former director of technical intelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, reporting that China gave Pakistan the blueprints of the first atomic bomb China had tested in 1966 and helped Pakistan test its own first atomic bomb at the Chinese nuclear test site on May 26, 1990â¿¿eight years before Pakistan openly â¿¿went nuclear.â¿¿ The article also contained a number of other startling assertions, including the claim that China operated a so-called fast-burst reactor to test bomb radiation effects.

Today, over lunch at the Union Club in New York City, the author of the article, Thomas C. Reed, stood by those allegations and filled in background. Reed, a nuclear physicist who started his career at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1950s, served as Secretary of the Air Force in the mid-1970s, straddling the Ford and Carter administrations. He also held a number of other high-level national security positions in the Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations. He was closely allied politically and personally with Reagan.


Reed confirmed that China provided Pakistan bomb information starting in 1982, having itself obtained valuable assistance from the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs during the 1950s, that it let Pakistan do its first test at Lop Nur in 1990, and that it also let France do hydro-nuclear experiments at its test site during the 1990s.


In a hydronuclear test, a bomb containing less than a critical mass of fissile material is detonated, to evaluate the performance of non-nuclear components. Reed says that France conducted such tests in Algeria in the 1950s, in the open, as did the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan; more responsibly, the United States and China did hydronuclear tests in steel containers, to prevent dispersal of radioactive material.


According to Reedâ¿¿s article, Danny Stillman of Los Alamos initially got the attention of the Chinese when he asked them whether they had a fast burst reactor, which they did. The question clearly implied that the United States had such a reactor, which I had not known, even though Iâ¿¿ve covered nuclear matters for thirty-plus years. I was not even aware that reactors had been designed deliberately to simulate the impact of nuclear explosions on nuclear weapons (although seventeen years ago I published an article in MITâ¿¿s Technology Review reporting an expert consensus that the basic cause of the Chernobyl catastrophe was a superprompt criticalityâ¿¿in plain English, a nuclear explosion).


How could a reactor be designed to go superprompt critical without actually exploding like a bomb? After all, as the great physicist Hans Bethe observed after Chernobyl, once a reactor goes superprompt critical, no control rod system can react fast enough to prevent an explosion.


Stillman says the general idea was to build a reactor with medium-enriched uranium (say 20 percent), with a void in the middle in which a nuclear weapon could be placed, and a configuration that enabled controllers to literally disassemble the reactor by having parts of it drop down. That way, a runaway criticality could be brought under control--not merely by removing control rods, which would not by itself sufficeâ¿¿but by actually inducing the reactor to fall apart. Even so, when a nuclear weapon was placed in the void and the reactor started to go supercritical, a â¿¿pre-scramâ¿¿ would be initiated, so that at just that point control rods already would be dropping and the reactor would be already disassembling. The experiments were very hazardous and had to be timed at a scale of tens of microseconds.


During the 1960s, Stillman says the United States built three such reactors, Kukla, Fran and Super-Kukla, named after a television series (they never got to Ollie). The point of this? To study how an intense radiation burst from enemy weapons would affect the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. In other words, these tests were conducted in the context of nuclear and missile defense efforts.

They weren't all dogs in the TechCrunch50 demo pit


The demo pit at TechCrunch is the territory of the also-rans (Iâ''m intentionally not calling them losers) and the pay-to-plays. That is, a subset of the 1030 applicants that werenâ''t picked to go on the main stage, got the use of a spot in the demo pit for one day, as long as they paid to send two representatives to the conference. Other companies paid for tables directly; conference sponsors got the biggest tables.

Still, I found a fair number of companies in the demo pit that were more interesting and potentially useful to me than their more fortunate brethren presenting on the main stage.

Some snapshots from the demo pit, in no particular order: This company out of Australia has made a tool for spellchecking websites. Given what I see daily online, websites definitely need spellchecking. I tested it on the IEEE Spectrum website, and it blasted through 100 pages in about 90 seconds, easily separating real errors from odd spellings that were potential errors but more likely tech jargon. The bad news is that once it identifies the errors, you need to actually go into the web site and fix them manually, which takes a lot longer than 90 seconds. Still, itâ''s a great start.

Cards Off. This technique for preventing internet shopping fraud is probably too complicated to catch on, but itâ''s a clever combination of web applications and hardware, in this case an RFID keyfob. As I understand it, the idea is that you give your personal credit information to just one company, Cards Off, and they handle billing for multiple merchants, who now donâ''t have to worry about the security of their own web sites. When the package is delivered, you confirm that you ordered it by allowing the delivery guy to scan your little RFID keychain. Putting RFID in the loop does make it more secure, but it seems unlikely that UPS and Fedex drivers are going to take this extra step for a third party. Maybe instead the company should market the service straight to the package delivery companies.

Twonq. This online reservation service for small businesses is a simple idea, and I canâ''t wait for it to catch on. While big businesses can afford to run their own online reservation service, Iâ''m still spending way too much time playing telephone tag with my haircutter, dentist, manicurist, etc; Iâ''m actually going to evangelize this service to them, it could make my life so much easier.

NutshellMail. This web-based service helps you keep track of multiple email accounts by way of summary messages, that is, on a regular schedule it sends a list of new messages on your secondary email accounts to your primary account; you can click on links in that email to retrieve the original message. I love this idea, because I donâ''t necessarily want to consolidate my secondary accounts by feeding them all directly into one place, some of them get a lot of junk, but I do need to check them occasionally. NutshellMail promises to make that process easier; Iâ''m getting in on the beta as soon as I can.

Apprema. So for some reason I have quite a few friends that regularly gift me with virtual plants on Facebook. I havenâ''t set up my virtual garden on the site (Iâ''m barely keeping up the watering on my real-world garden off site), so I reject these gifts, feeling as if perhaps Iâ''m violating some kind of etiquette. Fortunately, these virtual plants are free, but there are virtual gifts on Facebook that cost real money, a concept I donâ''t understand at all. Appremaâ''s approach is to let people on social networks pay small amounts of real money for real gifts, like Starbucks lattes, that can be easily regifted or redeemed offline. And groups can easily join together with micropayments towards a group gift; I can definitely see highschoolers chipping in 5 cents each towards a happy birthday ice cream at Cold Stone. I did try the Apprema website, and itâ''s a little buggy, but itâ''s early days.

Caption: TechCrunch50 organizer Jason Calcanis walks his dog through the demo pit, followed by actor Ashton Kutcher.

Remote Back Up for Consumers

When my 500 GB Seagate Free Agent drive bit the dust yesterday, I just shrugged my shoulders. Another piece of hardware brought low by my bad electro mojo. Or is it the oil in my skin? Then I panicked. My life is on my laptop and now I've got no back up of my documents, financials, photos, movies, anything. After calming down, and perusing the Times, I found today's entry in the Bits blog about Carbonite, a start-up back up company. Perfect, except that they don't support Macs yet. But Mozy, an EMC company, does. So I downloaded the Mozy software, paid $4.95 for one month's worth of storage (unlimited capacity), and started uploading the precious contents of my hard drive to some data warehouse somewhere in...somewhere. Only drawback: the initial upload of 70 GB of data will take approximately 9 days. Thereafter, the automatic updates should take mere minutes or hours. It's no Time Capsule, but it's not $500 either.

Hanford B Reactor Designated National Landmark


Photo: Walter Whitman

A windowless concrete structure standing alone on a stretch of desert in the northwestern United States is now a National Historic Landmark. The structure is the B Reactor, the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor and a key piece of the Manhattan Project. The federal government announced the landmark status late last month, and now the reactor will become more accessible to the public, the New York Times reports.

The B Reactor, part of the Hanford nuclear fuel fabrication site in Washington State, produced the plutonium used in the first man-made nuclear explosion, the Trinity test in the desert north of Alamogordo, N.M., on 16 July 1945. It also produced the plutonium used in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on 9 August 1945. For years, the reactor faced an uncertain future. It had been shut down since 1968, but recent cleanup initiatives at Hanford called for "cocooning" the facility -- demolishing most of it and sealing its nuclear core.

Back in 2005, with news that one of the most incredible pieces of technology from the World War II era could become a cocoon of concrete, my editor dispatched photographer Walter Whitman and I to the site. We spent two and a half days at the reactor, contemplating both its extraordinary technology -- its design derived from an experimental reactor built by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago -- and the horrifying consequences of its products. The result was a photo essay, "The Atomic Fortress That Time Forgot," that Spectrum ran that year in April.

Some of Whitman's photos show parts of the B Reactor that very few people had seen before. I recall that at one point during our visit, Whitman asked the two Hanford workers escorting us if he could get closer to the nuclear core, an enormous metal and graphite structure 12 meters tall. He wanted to get a better shot of the pipes that traverse the core and housed the uranium slugs when the reactor was active. I was a bit surprised when the workers, who carried Geiger counters everywhere, said, â''No problem, sir. This way.â''

They explained that we couldnâ''t climb on the platform that stands before the coreâ''s front face, but they could show us the rear face. We followed the workers to another part of the building and they opened a heavy door leading to a staircase. At the top, we passed through a narrow, zigzagging corridor (designed, I believe, to reduce radiation leakage in case of an accident) and arrived at a suspended platform. We were now so close to the core, we could touch it if we wanted. Whitman, smiling, got to work, placing his Hasselblad as close as possible to the "pigtail" pipes protruding from the back of B Reactor's nuclear heart.

My reaction was a bit different. I stood back there, just thinking that, were the core "hot," flush with chain-reacting neutrons, the atoms in my body would instantly transmute into the whole periodic table. Hopefully the nasty radiation would be all gone? I only stopped worrying weeks later, when a letter from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory came in the mail. Its Radiation Protection Services division measures the dosimeters all Hanford visitors and employees have to carry. They had my results, which I read with relief: my "Whole Body Effective Dose Equivalent" was ".000" units of rem.

To see Whitman's photos, along with descriptions of how the B Reactor worked and its history, you can download the pdf of the article. For more about site tours, check out this DOE Hanford web site. And if you ever go there, don't forget to ask to see the rear face.

Nantero Sells Business Unit to Keep Nanotube Memory Chip Alive

There have been incredulous rumblings recently about the status of Nanteroâ''s carbon nanotube-enabled alternative to flash memory, including some on the pages of Spectrum.

Part of the problem, as cited in the above article, is that it is difficult for a small start-up to take on the long and risky prospect of transforming the computer memory market.

â''A company like Nantero canâ''t take such long bets,â'' says G. Dan Hutcheson, chief executive of VLSI Research, a top semiconductor analysis company in Santa Clara, Calif., in the article.

Good point. How does a small company with fewer resources than the large companies it is competing with manage to get itself from here to there?

The answer had been providing solutions to others and charging $190 an hour for technical support, and relying on military R&D funds.

Well the latter may no longer be part of Nantero as Lockheed Martin and Nantero announced last month that Lockheed Martin acquired the government business unit of Nantero, Inc.

With approximately 30 of Nanteroâ''s employees now joining Lockheed Martin and the two companies reaching an exclusive license arrangement for government applications of Nanteroâ''s IP portfolio, some might argue that we have witnessed the fate of Nanteroâ''acquired by Lockheed Martin.

But apparently not. Greg Schmergel, Nanteroâ''s co-founder and CEO, is quoted as saying, â''This transaction provides Nantero with increased resources and strategic focus to achieve our goals in the commercial memory space."

It is heartening to know that we do not have to let go of our dream of seeing nanotube-enabled NRAM being available commercially in "two years".

Swype knocks one out of the park at TechCrunch50


(Had to go with the baseball metaphor, given that this is the first technology conference Iâ''ve ever attended that starts each day with a singing of the National Anthem. Itâ''s a little weird, especially for the international attendees, to some of whom I found myself explaining that this is not actually customary.)

Towards the end of the second day of TechCrunch50 came the moment all of us attendees had been waiting for: the introduction of something unique, incredibly useful, relevant to a wide range of devices and applications, based on really clever technology, and just plain cool. Swype gave us that moment.

Swype is a method for entering text onto touchscreens, with a finger on screens that like fingers, a stylus on screens optimized for stylus input. To â''swypeâ'' as opposed to type, you simply â''connect the dotsâ'' on an image of a qwerty keyboard, moving from letter to letter without picking up your finger. For the word â''catâ'', for example, you run your finger or stylus from the c to the a to the t; you can start the next word without a break. For odd spellings or names used for the first time, you switch to tapping instead of swyping; the next time you use that name, you can swype it because the software will remember the word.

The demo was awesome; the demonstrator was swyping 50 words a minute. Even more compelling was the fact that when the judges were dragged out of their seats to try the technology, their attempts shown live to the audience, they were quickly able to reasonably competent, and seemed reluctant to stop swyping.

The company swore that itâ''s got the patent situation on gesture entry of text well covered. Itâ''d like to make swype a core technology for touchscreen displays, and I hope they succeed; swyping instead of typing just looked like so much fun!

Caption: Swype in action, at the hands of a novice.

Video Demo:

TechCrunch50 goes from ho hum to oh wow in 60 minutes flat

2843595359_9aec52c4d4.jpgDay One of TechCrunch50, for me, was a bit of a slog. A few attempts to compete with Facebook (Hangout, Tweegee)â''good luck with that. Some me-toos with a twist, like Yammer, a Twitter for business useâ''not a bad idea, but not groundbreaking. And some tools, like Blueprint for developing code for multi-core processors, and Burt, to help ad agencies design ads for the Internet, videogames, and other digital channels--useful, but niche-y

But midafternoon on day two, things suddenly got interesting, really interesting.

There was a sense that the natives were getting restless when the panel of celebrity tech-savvy judges savaged an introduction by a company called Imindi, much to the surprise, and, for the most part, delight, of the crowd. Not that people like to see a hardworking entrepreneurâ''s idea shot down, but the exchange gave a big boost to the conferenceâ''s energy level. Imindi purports to be the worldâ''s first thought engine; it taps the power of social networks to make creating a detailed mind-map easier. As Imindi explained it, a mind map is, essentially, a list of things you might be thinking about throughout your day with lines connecting them to subcategories in each space, for example, if Iâ''m thinking about my role as a parent, I theoretically might be thinking about education, health, or childrenâ''s nutrition. Iâ''m actually more likely to be trying to figure out how Iâ''m going to squeeze in dinner before leaving for back-to-school night tonight, but thatâ''s another story. Drawing a mind map might take you a long time by yourself, but using the companyâ''s tools, you can simply put in â''parentingâ'' and use other peopleâ''s subcategories to fill in the details. And then by comparing your mind map against the mind map of others, you can find people who think like you.

The obvious question is, â''why?â'' And judge Mark Cuban, founder of, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and former contestant on Dancing With the Stars, didnâ''t mince words. â''That sounded like the biggest bunch of bullshit Iâ''ve ever heard in my life.â''

The panel did have some advice to turn the company into a success: â''Make it a corporate application, then all you need to do is find one messed up kindred soul at a big corporation.â''

Things calmed down with Me-trics, a company that letâ''s you track various activities like stress level and twitter use and then looks for correlations, seems like it has possibilities, though some panelists were skeptical that people would be willing to enter information over the long term. iCharts, a web-based application that turns data into charts, lets you publish them online, and makes those published charts searchable, also seemed like a useful idea.

Then came Tonchidotâ''s â''Sekai Camera,â'' an iPhone application that uses location data along with information from the deviceâ''s internal accelerometer to â''tagâ'' a scene in real time; the tags appear on the display as overlays as you look through the iPhoneâ''s built-in camera. The presentation brought the crowd to its feet, cheering the enthusiasm of the firmâ''s incomprehensible founder as well as the simple audacity of the idea; Tonchidot simply proposes tagging reality, from large buildings to tiny cell phones in a storeâ''s display case.

Of course, whether or not the application can actually be extended past the prototype stage is an open question. And the judges asked a lot of questions about whether this is a fantasy straight out of Neuromancer or a product that can really be implemented. Panelist Tim Oâ''Reilly, founder of O'Reilly media, said, "Itâ''s a wonderful concept, weâ''ve been fantasizing about it for years, the question is, can you build it?â''

Parried the Tonchidot spokesman: â''Please donâ''t forget imagination.â''

Postbox hit a double, that is, people both liked the idea and at least half the attendees in a straw poll were eager to try the product. Postbox is installable software, not a web-based application, that manages vast amount of email messages from different accounts in what appeared to be an intuitive and simple way, vastly better than anything out there at this point on or off the web. Personally, Iâ''ve been hanging onto Eudora for a long time now, waiting for a reason to move on. Postbox may turn to finally be that reason; at least Iâ''ll give it a try. (I already signed up for the beta, I'll let you know how it goes.)

And then Swype hit a home run. And for more on that, go to my next post.

Photo: Tonchidot's SekaiCamera in action.

Controversial India-U.S. Nuclear Deal Hangs in Balance

A major agreement lifting restrictions on nuclear commerce with India, which Washington and Delhi have been negotiating for years, finally has reached its final hurdle, approval by Congress. The Bush administration has just a couple of weeks to get the U.S. legislatureâ''s assent before adjournment, and may not succeed. The draft agreement has been immensely controversial in both India and the United States, as well as in several other influential countries. Just the thought of it came close to bringing down the Indian government this summer.

The main Indian opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has condemned the agreement as a â''nonproliferation trapâ'' that will prevent the country from realizing its full military potential. The Hindu right has been particularly incensed by reports that Delhi made back-channel promises to never test nuclear weapons again, as a condition of getting a go-ahead for the deal from the Nuclear Suppliers Group , 45 countries that export nuclear technology.

The decision on Sept. 6 by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to support the deal was the next-to-last hurdle that the agreement had to clear before going to Congress. The Arms Control Associationâ''the ordinarily staid and cautious voice of the American arms control establishmentâ''assailed the supplier groupâ''s move as â''a nonproliferation disaster of historic proportionsâ'' supported only by â''Orwellian claims.â'' Londonâ''s Financial Times called the U.S.-India agreement â''a bad dealâ'' that â''makes a mockery of the non-proliferation treatyâ'' and threatens to â''accelerate the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.â''

So enraged has been the Arms Control Association, two weeks ago it circulated a report from Platts Nuclear News Flash claiming that Germany was caving into the U.S. position because of crass commercial concerns. (According to the Platts report, Franceâ''a supporter of the U.S.-India dealâ''would let Germanyâ''s Siemens retain a one-third stake in the French nuclear manufacturer Areva if Germany dropped objections to the Indian deal in the suppliers group, which it has been chairing.)

Letâ''s calm down a little and consider the various arguments and counter-arguments analytically.

First, itâ''s true as an Indian expert author argued in Spectrum last year, that Indiaâ''s performance in nuclear energy has consistently lagged behind expectations, and that claims made for the deal by the Indian government should therefore be treated with suspicion. But doesnâ''t this cut both ways? Indiaâ''s past shortcomings have had a good deal with its go-it-alone path; the agreement with the United States, if approved by Congress, will allow the country to import nuclear reactors for the first time since its initial 1974 nuclear weapons test, and tentative plans call for it to buy about eight.

Second, itâ''s true that making it easier for India to import nuclear fuel also will make it easier for the country to obtain fissile material for its atomic bombs; nuclear material is fungible. But isnâ''t the horse already out of the barn? India has gone nuclear and will not give up its arsenal unless every other nuclear weapons state does the sameâ''a position it has consistently adhered to since the 1950s, when its diplomats first starting calling nuclear nonproliferation an attempt to disarm the unarmed, while leaving the armed free to keep arming.

Yes, it sticks in the craw (third) to now allow India to import nuclear technology freely, after it used imported technology, in defiance of pledges made, to get material for its first bomb. But is this â''rewardingâ'' India, or just acknowledging that something has changed that canâ''t be unchanged? And (fourth) how much, really, will the agreement further heat up an arms race between India and Pakistan thatâ''s already very heated?

Maybe this is the really decisive point: for sure, the special treatment India gets in the deal is bound to enrage Pakistanis, whose ongoing assistance is crucial to hunting down Al Qaedaâ''s leaders, ending the global war on terror, and bringing U.S. troops home. Given Pakistanâ''s extreme instability, is it really a good idea to feed flames there, without truly compelling cause?

Just for the sake of a few reactor sales, do we want to worsen the odds of an Islamist government coming to power in nuclear-armed Pakistan?


CERN accelerator

Find the full-size image at Slashdot

The LHC successfully circulated protons around the accelerator ring earlier this morning. (it was 9 am European time, so the Fermilab people were having a "pajama party" in their remote control center in Battavia, Illinois).

The live webcast from the LHC control rooms still going on. Check it out!

But an experimental physicist on the project who just got back from CERN told me that the "real" collisions won't commence until October. "This is when the real fun will start!" he said.


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