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American Superconductor Secures Project Hydra Contract

Last year, the best-known and hardest-charging company commercializing the so-called high-temperature superconductors, American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC), came under fire in connection with a contract to upgrade the New York City power system. The basic idea, which was new and untested, was that by using superconducting cable in the New York distribution grid, not only could the capacity of the system be increased up to ten-fold, but the intrinsic properties of superconductors could be exploited to damp excess currents.

AMSC and its subcontracting partner in the plan, New Yorkâ''s Con Edison, obtained a commitment to fund the project from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. DHS saw the project, which it dubbed Hydra, as an opportunity to demonstrate technology that could be used to fortify grids against breakdown and attack everywhere in the country. But because of a pattern of sole-source contracting between AMSC and U.S. government agencies, and the role of one person in particular in negotiating such contracts for the government, Project Hydra came into the sights of Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.), surely the most feared investigator on Capitol Hill.

AMSC had obtained contracts to develop superconducting electric motors for the U.S. Navy, when Rear Admiral Jay M. Cohen was Chief of Naval Research, and now this very same Cohen was giving AMSC another big contract as a research director at DHS!

AMSC and Project Hydra appear now to have survived Dingellâ''s challenge. The company announced yesterday that DHS has signed a contract with AMSC to proceed with demonstration of the companyâ''s Secure Super Grids technology in New York, using its second-generation â''344â'' cable. DHS, having already paid AMSC $3.8 million under a letter agreement, will now pay up to a total of $25 million to complete the project, contingent on demonstrated performance, step-by-step.

What Dingell may have missed, as emphasized in the analytic story IEEE Spectrum published about Project Hydra last November, is that this is basically a research and development project: as it proceeds, new technology will be developed and tested, and only if it pans out at each stage will the next phase of the project be funded. But if Dingell is confused, heâ''s not to be blamed. The company itself, seeking to project a confident image and to persuade the world that this is a wholly done deal, has obscured the projectâ''s experimental character.

One New Year's resolution checked off: I'm finally on Facebook


Iâ''m usually the early adopter in my family (among the adults, anyway), so I was a bit chagrined late last year when my husband got a Facebook page before me. And then, at CES, a few people, besides handing me a business card, said â''Friend me on Facebook.â'' Clearly, I needed to do this. It went to the top of my to-do list for 2008; I didnâ''t care if â''Over 40 is Facebook Creepy.â''

It wasnâ''t as simple as it was supposed to be. First, Facebook didnâ''t like my name; apparently, and flagged it as fake. I had to send an email to customer service and wait for a real person to override the system and let me sign up. Then, since I typically use Eudora (I know, old tech, but Iâ''m not the only one hanging on to it), it couldnâ''t hunt my web-based email list to automatically find friends. Instead, I cut and paste a few of my mailing lists into Facebookâ''s Friendfinder. The first list it sorted the addresses into two sections, indicating who among my friends were on Facebook and would be contacted. The second time I loaded a list it choked; I wasnâ''t sure if any invites went out, but later got a few responses, so it apparently worked.

In spite of those glitches, it was pretty simple, and I now have a Facebook page and 35 friends. I now know that one of my friends is addicted to online scrabble and another

reads a lot of blogs.

The first few days on Facebook I checked pretty frequently; it was fun watching peopleâ''s pictures pop up in my friend screen. I definitely need a much hipper picture, the classic Facebook photo seems to be something involving a tilted head partially obscured by a door or a computer or a hand; mine is boring, though I changed it to black and white to make it a little more artsy. I scanned through some of the more popular applications; none really grabbed me. I donâ''t really want to take movie quizzes, collect virtual fish in an aquarium, or track my reading on a virtual bookshelf. But Iâ''d better pick a few soon, my page is pretty dull.

Iâ''m not sure how useful Facebook is going to turn out to be. When Iâ''m traveling, I expect Iâ''ll flag that information in my â''statusâ'' line; every now and then I find out that someone I know and I crossed paths during travel; it would be great to know that ahead of time. And likely when my son goes to college in a year and a half, I may come to love Facebookâ''s updates on his activities.

Richard Branson: 2008 Is "Year of the Spaceship"

Yesterday, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur famed for his airline and music businesses, unveiled his latest space transport designs for a system capable of carrying passengers on sub-orbital flights on a paid basis to his Virgin Galactic operation. The designs of the new spacecraft and its launch craft, respectively named SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two, expand upon the work done by aeronautics legend Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., which won the coveted Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first private endeavor to achieve human spaceflight. Virgin Galactic said that the new spaceship and mothership will begin flight tests this summer in New Mexico.

"I think it's very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," Branson said to the gathered media yesterday, according to an account from BBC News. "If we do, I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology. This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and Internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."

The construction of SpaceShipTwo is reportedly 60 percent complete. It is being built to accommodate a crew of two pilots and six passengers, who will fly sometime in 2009, if all goes according to plan, from a facility called Spaceport America, near Upham, N.M. The overall flight should last about 2.5 hours and reach an altitude of 110 kilometers (the defined edge of space), where it will provide passengers with the experience of weightlessness for approximately 6 minutes, as well as a view of the planet below that only a few professional space travelers have seen before. In recompense, the spacecraft's first 100 passengers will pay Virgin Galactic US $200 000.

The company announced that it has already received tens of millions of dollars in deposits from some 200 individuals who would like to be early participants aboard the new spacecraft, which will be christened VSS Enterprise. The list of civilian pioneers includes actor William Shatner, famed for helming the fictional ship of the same name in the TV series "Star Trek", as well as other celebrities such as Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Hawking, according to Virgin Galactic.

Branson also said at the New York press conference that SpaceShipTwo will be made available to research groups interested in launching payloads into near orbit at a fraction of the price of rocket delivery.

"As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the universe," Branson told the media.

On its Web site, Virgin Galactic noted that the White Knight Two mothership will be powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, 'which are amongst the most powerful, economic, and efficient engines available', as part of a call on Branson's part to make the entire project as environmentally responsible as possible.

In a prepared statement on the site, Branson said yesterday: "[W]e are all very excited about the prospect of being able to develop a bio-fuel solution for the space launch system and we are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft."

To herald the advent of the new era of civilian space travel, the marketing department at Virgin Galactic is dubbing 2008 as "The Year of the Spaceship."

It should be quite an auspicious calendar to keep track of.

Clearing IEDs and Saving Lives in Iraq


I'm back for a night at Camp Victory after a couple days with an Explosives Ordnance Demolition team at a dusty Forward Operating Base south of Baghdad....

EOD techs are called in whenever IEDs are found, and, using robots, they either disable and collect the devices for forensic analysis or they blow them up. They are also called in to help troops move through an area, often by clearing routes of IEDs.

The EOD techs I talked to were all young, gung ho, profanely funny, and smart. There was a sign taped to the door of their tent: “It you open this box, run away as fast as you can and call EOD. If you are reading this message, you are already dead.”' They had lots of video they'd shot of the explosions, some huge, that occurred when they blew up IEDs.

One guy described a mission he'd been on this past Nov. 7 to accompany troops moving on foot through a bad area south of Baghdad. Their objective was to “go in and capture some high-value individuals.” Or, presumably, kill them, but he didn't say that specifically. There were two EOD techs, including the guy who told me the story.

The patrol was being led by a CLC who said he knew where the IEDs were. The area was known to have a lot of pressure-plate IEDs, which go off when the victim steps on the plate. One and a half kilometers in, they came under fire briefly, and took cover. The fire stopped; apparently this is SOP for the insurgents. They fire on Coalition troops to slow and harass the troops (and, of course, kill them if they can) and then they flee, because the insurgents understand they can't win a protracted gun battle.

After they realized the insurgents were gone, the patrol continued on. After about 150 meters, they heard another shot, which they assumed was from the same insurgents. But it was the CLC, who had taken it upon himself to shoot a single bullet at an abandoned house that was thought to have been used by Al Qaeda recently. The troops, not knowing where the shot came from, jumped in a canal to take cover. Then, after a few minutes, still not knowing that the shot had come from their own CLC, the officer leading the group brought up a fire team of three rifleists to address the perceived threat from the abandoned house. As the team was going forward, with the officer, one of the rifleists stepped on a pressure-plate IED and it blew, severely injuring the three rifleists and the officer. One of the IED guys immediately began using technical means (it's classified) to “clear” the area, i.e., make sure there weren't other IEDs.

They had to do this even before medics could go to the injured men, because there was no way of knowing whether there were other IEDs. The other troops had to stay still, because of that possibility, not uncommonly, IEDs are placed in groups. Basically, the EOD tech had to clear the area around the injured men so that they could be reached safely. He cleared an area to the most gravely injured guy, the one who had stepped on the plate, and the other EOD tech (the one who was telling me the story) dragged that severely injured soldier to a spot where the medic could start administering first aid. Then the first EOD tech had to clear an area so that the medevac helicopter, already on its way, could land.

He had no sooner done this than a sergeant yelled that he saw another IED nearby. So then that first EOD tech had to clear the area around *that* IED so that the troops there could move away safely.

It turned out that the IED that blew and the one the sergeant found were the only two devices they found. The guy who stepped on the plate died in a field hospital. He had a wife and two young kids. The other three guys had frag wounds in their legs and one of those guys also broke a leg. The officer leading the patrol never stopped giving orders and leading the patrol.

New NASA Rocket Has Vibration Problems

Over the weekend, we learned the U.S. space agency's new rocket for the next generation of space vehicles has a design problem that could seriously undermine its progress. Still on the drawing board, the proposed Ares class of main propulsion engines has an engineering flaw that will most likely lead to severe vibrations upon launch, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The new Ares rockets are being developed to lift the spacecraft that will replace the shuttle into orbit. They are designed to take advantage of successful technology modified from the shuttle program and are officially designated as Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle prototypes. NASA plans to use them to return to the Moon by the year 2020--and keep on going from there to Mars ultimately.

Relying on solid-fuel engines, the first of their class, Ares I, is to be the rocket that will serve to propel the astronauts onboard the proposed Orion crew launch vehicle into space. Engineers are now pointing out that the current design of the Ares I shows flaws in the use of the first-stage solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that could lead to significant shaking of the units, possibly transmitting vibrations up the rocket. Should the vibration problem be severe enough during ascent to cause damage to the upper stages of the craft, it could prove to be catastrophic.

Reached by the AP after it had learned of the flaw through a Freedom of Information Act petition, NASA managers said they were fully aware of the problem and expected to have it fixed by as early as March, posing no delay to the overall schedule of the pending Project Constellation program.

"I hope no one was so ill-informed as to believe that we would be able to develop a system to replace the shuttle without facing any challenges in doing so," Administrator Michael Griffin said in a statement to the AP. "NASA has an excellent track record of resolving technical challenges. We're confident we'll solve this one as well."

One of the outside experts recruited by the news service to examine the design of the Ares I agreed with others that the SRBs' tendency to vibrate at lift-off posed a serious hazard, but he was also confident that NASA would be able to overcome it.

"NASA has developed one of the safest and risk-controlled space programs in engineering history," Professor Jorge Arenas of the Institute of Acoustics in Valdivia, Chile, told the AP.

As the report explains:

The shaking problem, which is common to solid rocket boosters, involves pulses of added acceleration caused by gas vortices in the rocket similar to the wake that develops behind a fast-moving boat, said Arenas, who has researched vibration and space-launch issues. Those vortices happen to match the natural vibrating frequencies of the motor's combustion chamber, and the combination causes the shaking.

The SRBs for the Ares I are being built by ATK Launch Systems of Brigham City, Utah.

The first launch of the Ares I to carry astronauts into space is scheduled for March 2015.

That gives NASA a good size window to make sure every possible bug in the system has been identified and eliminated. Historically, it is an agency that understands just how much is at stake.

Road blocks on the hydrogen highway

master_map-N_05022007_02.jpgRemember the â''hydrogen highway?â'' This was California Governor Arnoldâ''s Schwarzeneggerâ''s vision back in 2004. He proclaimed that, by 2010, California highways would be lined with hydrogen fueling stations, some 20 miles apart throughout the state, enabling hydrogen-powered cars and buses to travel freely. He signed an executive order setting up a private and public partnership to implement that vision.

2010 is almost here, and it hasnâ''t exactly worked out. (We didnâ''t think it would; IEEE Spectrum called the effort a â''loserâ'' in its January 2004 issue.) At its peak in 2006, the state had 24 stations; now it has 23, next month that number is expected to drop to 22 when PG&E closes a San Francisco station. While a few new ones opened, a few also closed. And several planned were never built. The California Air Resources Board agreed to spend about $1 million each to fund stations built by the San Diego Unified School District and the California State University-Los Angeles; both projects fell through. And PG&E just turned down $1.5 million to build a hydrogen refueling station in San Carlos.

The Air Resources Board hasnâ''t given up; itâ''s putting out a call for proposals for a total of $7.7 million of funding already set aside for new hydrogen fuel stations or upgrades. And the new state budget asks for $6 million more for such projects. But will there be any takers?

Out of Africa: a new model for academic computer science

Newly-minted PhDs in computer science flock to Silicon Valley or other information-technology centers around the world. John Quinn had a different idea of how to pursue a scientific career. A Scot from Inverness, Quinn received his doctorate in computational analysis from the University of Edinburgh last year. His specialty is how computers recognize patterns.

Concerned about the shortage of computer professors with PhDs at African universities, Quinn decided to join the faculty of one, forgoing a position at a university in Britain. After a brief tour, Quinn, who is 28 years old, chose the Computer and Information Technology department of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Makerere is in the forefront of a movement to improve computer science and electrical engineering departments in Africa. One part of the strategy is to attract talent from technologically advanced societies. The university attracted Quinn with a salary that approaches what heâ''d earn as a new faculty in Europe and a challenging teaching load that includes contributing to a new graduate program.

â''In CS, Makerere is becoming a serious competitor with South African universities,â'' generally considered to be the strongest in the region, Quinn says.

â''The program runs with great energy and optimism,â'' Quinn adds. Faculty camaraderie is high. Most gather daily for a 1 pm lunch. About a dozen of the professors hold a doctorate; the remaining 40-50 instructors hold only masterâ''s degrees or less. â''The environment is convivial,â'' he says.

To my knowledge, Quinn was the only European holder to obtain a new CS doctorate who then migrated to Africa to teach. He arrived in Kampala last September. â''Iâ''ve been delighted,â'' he says. â''It just doesnâ''t occur to computer academics to come to Africa to teach. Africa isnâ''t on the map.â''

Quinn is bullish that Makerere Universityâ''s Computer and Information Technology department will make Kampala one possible destination for other graduates of doctoral CS programs in Europe and the U.S. Quinn has already written two papers while at Makerere, one of which will be published in April, he says,. In IEEEâ''s International Conference on Acoustics. The paper is about how computers drown out, or mask, signals.

Besides his own research in pattern recognition, Quinn is trying to stimulate the dozen graduate students he mentors to craft their own research agendas. He expects to spend at least another two years at Makerere.

Quinn advises other CS academics in North America and Europe -- both inexperienced and veterans â'' to consider a stretch of teaching in sub-Saharan Africa. His advice?

â''Be prepared to deal with isolation,â'' especially while doing research, he says. He says that a taste for the style and serendipity of African life is also a plus.

NASA Wants Virtual World Designers for MMO

The U.S. space agency has placed a request for information (RFI) on its Web site for software developers interested in creating a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game for space enthusiasts. BBC News is reporting that the goal of the game they want to create is to reach young people interested in space exploration.

The MMO game the agency is seeking would "simulate real NASA engineering and science missions," according to the RFI. "A high quality synthetic gaming environment is a vital element of NASA's educational cyberstructure," it goes on to add.

"The MMO will foster career exploration opportunities in a much deeper way than reading alone would permit and at a fraction of the time and cost of an internship program."

The BBC article points out that NASA already is a player in the virtual worlds phenomenon, with its own base of operations in the highly popular game Second Life. The outpost, known as CoLab and operated by the Ames Research Center in California, is dedicated to fostering collaboration between the agency and those attracted to the space program.

"We at NASA are working hard to create opportunities for what I might call participatory exploration," the director of the project, Simon Worden, told delegates at the National Space Society's conference last year, according to the BBC report. "We are looking at how this island can be a portal for all to fly along on space missions."

"When the next people step onto the surface of the Moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them," he added.

The RFI is an invitation to game specialists to become involved in a dedicated new MMO environment to be developed under the auspices of the NASA Learning Technologies Project Office. The deadline for submitting requests for participation is 15 February.

It states: "A NASA-based MMO could provide opportunities for students to investigate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career paths while participating in engaging game play."

Now, all you advanced game developers out there have a really significant real-world challenge to rise to, one worthy of your amazing skills. Take 'em on. You could help explore really other worlds.

Scientists find a way to make airplanes "greener"

Lighten the weight of its wings and an airplane immediately becomes more fuel efficient. Researchers at Delft University in the Netherlands, along with collaborators at aluminium giant Alcoa and GTM Advanced Structures, have redesigned airplane wings so that they are made up like a sandwich. The central layer is a strong mesh of fibers laminated with metal; on either side lies a thick aluminium layer. Not only does this create a light, robust wing, the resulting structure is also insensitive to metal fatigue, which plagues wings made just of aluminium. Besides, the new wings are stronger than the carbon fiber reinforced plastic wings that have recently been used in aircraft such as the Boeing 787. The researchers estimate that using their new "green" design allows a weight reduction of about 20 per cent compared to the Boeing 787. They translate this to a worldwide fuel and maintenance savings of $100 billion for the airline industry.




Bobby Fischer Dies





Credit: Chris Lott



Robert J. Fischer has died, apparently of kidney failure, in Reykjavik, Iceland. This is the city where he had won fame in 1972 by defeating Boris Spassky to become World Chess Champion, the only American to do so in modern times. Three years later, Fischer refused to defend his title and became a recluse. He emerged only in 1992 to win a return match against Spassky, then long past his prime.


Because Fischer played that match in war-torn Yugoslavia, in defiance of a U.S. economic embargo, and because he refused to pay income taxes on the money heâ¿¿d won, he became a man without a country, sojourning in Hungary, the Philippines, Japan and other places. After September 11, 2001, he added insult to injury by cheering on al Qaeda, a move that may have induced U.S. diplomats to intensify their pursuit of him. He was run to ground in Japan in 2004, where he eluded extradition to the U.S. only at the last minute, when Iceland granted him citizenship and thus the right of domicile.


Many former fans, seeking to retain a shred of their image of Bobby, as he was universally known, excused his behavior on the ground heâ¿¿d lost his mind. The cited his frequent anti-Semitic outbursts, made though Fischerâ¿¿s late mother (and perhaps his father, as well) were themselves Jews. On the other hand, Fischer had been giving vent to such opinions since his adolescence. Also, although he had always shown signs of paranoia (which is not uncommon among grandmasters), his mind remained clear on the things that mattered to him.


Readers of this blog will be interested to know that in 1989 Fischer took out the patent for a computerized device, called the Fischer Clock, that has since changed the way the game is played. With each move completed, the clock adds a designated number of seconds to a playerâ¿¿s allotted thinking time, ensuring that no one need lose a clearly drawn position for sheer lack of time to physically make the moves. Fischer also patented FischerRandom chess, in which a computer sets up the initial position randomly (albeit under certain constraints). That way, no player can derive unfair advantage from pre-game opening preparation.


Both innovations were meant, in part, to counter the influence of computers on human players. Interestingly, the remedies themselves depend on computers. Spectrum has chronicled both the success of computer chess programs versus Gary Kasparov and what human players can do to try to fight back.

So much for his life. (It's also worth checking out Paul Hoffman's take on the chess hero) Now let me tell you what it meant to players like me. I got into the game as a freshman in high school, in 1969. That was just before Bobby, as he was universally known, had begun his final ascent to the championship. Suddenly, it was cool to play chess.


We players were proud that Fischer had won the respect of millions of non-players, from with President Nixon on down, and that his example had converted tens of thousands of people to the game. Such newbies swelled the tournament halls, raising prize funds to Las Vegas standards and enriching formerly threadbare masters. The â¿¿Fischer Boomâ¿¿ had begun.


I well remember the transformation of the chess club in my hometown of Chicago. When I first attended it, it was a second-floor dive in a dicey part of the Loop, defined by the curving route of the cityâ¿¿s elevated train, whose ear-splitting screech did not so much as register with the 50-odd men bending over their chessboards. After Fischerâ¿¿s success, the club removed to far plusher digs, in the LaSalle Hotel, where the resident masters at last began to eat and dress like human beings.


Then Bobby turned his back on the game, and the club faded again. When I visited it last, in 1978, it was in accommodations even worse than those it had started in. The few masters who still visited there looked hungry. Although the rest of the world continued to play chess, but in America it suffered a decline from which it is only now emerging.


It had all happened before, in the 1850s, when a 21-year-old Louisianian named Paul Morphy went to Europe and crushed its best players. Like Fischer, Morphy was without peer; he developed in isolation from the best players; he had an encyclopedic â¿¿bookâ¿¿ knowledge of the game; he was feted by the press and by the grandees of the day; he quit at the height of his fame; he exhibited signs of eccentricity verging on madness. Morphy, though trained as a lawyer, never practiced, but lived out his bachelor existence on an inheritance, refusing ever to speak of chess.


No such towering player can ever come again, for chess is no longer what it was. Fischer is part of the reason for the change, because he set a new standard that all serious players thenceforth had to meet. It was an inhuman regimen of work, which he began at the age of seven at the cost of school, family and friends. He would not allow himself even the smallest luxury if it interfered with his goals. Once, when a tournament sponsor offered him the hotel room with the best view, Fischer refused it in favor of a windowless cell.


â¿¿All I want to do, ever,â¿¿ he had said as a child, â¿¿is play chess.â¿¿ Gary Kasparov, todayâ¿¿s leading player, has called him â¿¿a centaur if you will, a synthesis between man and chess.â¿¿


Before Fischer, many world-class players had followed a professionâ¿¿Mikhail Botvinnik, world champion in the 1950s, was an electrical engineer; Max Euwe, champion in the late 1930s, was a mathematician. Todayâ¿¿s top players are players for as long as they hope to competeâ¿¿and nothing more.


A few years ago, Fischer derided todayâ¿¿s young grandmasters for their excessive reliance on computer chess programs and game databases, which allow a player to keep up with millions of games, including those played this morning in another part of the world. He joked that they all had to wear glasses because theyâ¿¿d spent so much time staring at computer screens. But Fischer would have done the same, only more so. As it was, he had one of the largest private chess libraries, and he subscribed to scores of chess journals in many languages, Russian above all.


Fischer did face a computer once. He played a Kingâ¿¿s Gambit against the MIT program and defeated it with ease; afterwards, he said computer chess would never get anywhere until chess masters began to work on the programs, alongside engineers. That was in 1978. Nineteen years later, Gary Kasparov lost a match against IBMâ¿¿s chess machine, Deep Blue, the first such machine to have been exhaustively tunedâ¿¿or trained?â¿¿by grandmasters.


Fischer was aged 64â¿¿the number of squares on a chessboard.





For other Spectrum articles about game-playing machines, see:


â¿¿Cracking Goâ¿¿ on efforts to defeat a still more complex game, from Asia.




â¿¿Checkers, Solved!â¿¿ on the proof that checkers, properly played, must always end in a draw,


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