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Forward Bias: Skunkworks X-Plane on YouTube

November 21, 2007

This Week's Theme: Leaked Document

Earlier this month, official footage of Lockheed Martin's P-791 X-plane (X-blimp, really) mysteriously ended up on YouTube, where many commenters noted the X-Blimp's resemblance to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

But P-791 is not the only game in town. The UK's SkyCat, Canada's Voyager, and Germany's CargoLifter are all hoping to replace the Hindenburg image in the collective imagination with something friendlier and less on fire. But why a hybrid blimp?

1. Airships can carry heavy loads with less fuel.

2. Slow takeoff and landing speeds allow liftoff from short, unprepared strips.

3. Airships can save the arctic.

4. They can enhance the European commuting experience.

5. 60,000 feet up is the ideal location for stationary airborne surveillance.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The day that analog (TV) dies

11.Dig.TV.Blog.gif On February 17, 2009, broadcasts of analog television signals in the U.S. will stop. That date is easy for me to remember; itâ''s my birthday. And Iâ''m paying attention to the upcoming event for another reason: Iâ''m one of the minority of U.S. TV viewers who is completely dependent on over-the-air broadcast. I donâ''t have cable, I donâ''t have satellite. I do have an antenna on my roof, a very old antenna that was already installed when I moved into this house. It works really well, I get all the network and a few indy VHF stations, and a selection of UHF stations in various languages.

As a result, Iâ''ve been thinking about the upcoming â''end of analogâ'' day. Iâ''ve also been thinking about winners and losers lately, as the Spectrum staff prepares its annual Winners and Losers issue. So I came up with my own list of who wins and who loses when analog TV goes dark.

Who wins: The consumer electronics manufacturers. My family will have to finally buy a new TV set to replace our 19-year-old 26-inch Mitsubishi CRT (yeah, Mitsubishi used to make direct view TVs), which is working just fine. I know, I could get a converter, but I have enough wires and boxes in a pile already, and somehow, buying a converter for what will then be a 20 year old TV seems silly. We canâ''t be the only ones that are waiting to buy a new TV until we absolutely have to. Kaching go the cash registers.

Who else wins: My husband. No struggling to figure out what to buy me for my birthday in 2009, see above.

Who loses: Me. I can think of a lot of things Iâ''d rather get for my birthday than a new TV.

Who else loses: My mom. Her TV was maybe 30 years old when it finally died last year and the local electronics store sold her an analog TV that she thought would last the rest of her life. They neglected to mention the upcoming 2009 event. I guess the good news is that sheâ''ll get a visit from me (cross-country) to hook up her converter.

Who wins: Recycling centers. Besides the Mitsubishi, Iâ''ve got two smaller CRT TVs that Iâ''ll have to cart over to the local recycling center. Fortunately, in California, where I live, the recycling fee comes out of funds collected when new TVs are purchased, so though I will be paying for disposal indirectly, it wonâ''t have to pull out the wallet when I bring in the TVs.

Who loses: The environment. Not everyone is going to cart their old TVs to a recycling center. Some will be dumpedâ''uh, disposed of improperly.

Who else loses: The folks (and there are lots of them) that collect, repair, and use vintage TV setsâ''see the video that opens this postâ''are going to have to find a new hobby. Well, theyâ''ll be able to collect the sets, they just wonâ''t have anything to watch off the air. (Purists believe that classic TV shows only should be viewed on classic TVs, which used different materials for phosphors than todayâ''s TVs so displayed different shades of color.)

Who else loses: Other antenna-users who have come to love distant stations, and donâ''t mind a little snow on the screen; thatâ''s not enough signal in a digital world, those channels will be completely out of reach.

Who wins: Pirate TV stations, because viewers who try to turn on their analog TV post-2-17-09 will find these the only game in town. Though the pirates' heyday may be brief, because the spectrum vacated by broadcasters will quickly be returned to the FCC, resold, and repurposed, it could be a lot of fun.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

The Good and the Bad in Consumer Electronics

I can't quite tell whether or not I'm pleased or upset right now, with my latest electronics purchase. I just downloaded a firmware update for our new television: put it on a USB key, put it in the USB port on the back of the TV, and the new, semi-expensive HD LCD now works correctly via HDMI.

Is this a good thing?

Time was, consumer electronics just seemed to work, period. If they didn't work, you returned them for a replacement, but the notion of them not doing what they were designed to do was considered rather a failing.

But now, having spent a fair bit of money on a new television set, and another fair bit on an satellite HD-DVR to take advantage of it, I am left wondering if I should expect consumer devices to work like, well, consumer devices, or if things are now going to function with the reliability and interoperability of computers, which are, essentially, still hobbyist devices.

Am I to be thankful that a firmware upgrade has fixed my TV, or should I be indignant that yet another old faithful piece of household equipment has become simply "good enough, we can fix it later"? The computer world is used to this, and there's a fairly significant buy-in with computers: you know you're getting rapidly-changing technology when you buy one. But televisions have generally Just Worked, or sometimes even Work Better If You Hit It On The Side Really Hard. I can't imagine how hitting my new TV could possibly result in anything good. And with the switch to digital coming, this is the sort of thing that will only become more prevalent. Goodbye forever, coat-hanger antenna, and hello, driver updates for your microwave oven.

It's a little perturbing to imagine a world where nothing is quite done at release. What if the old joke about Microsoft Cars is, in fact, where we are heading?

The worst travel day of the year


In the U.S., the day before Thanksgiving is the worst day of the year to travel by plane. Airport parking lots fill up, security lines back up, and if a flight is overbooked or canceled, well, better start cooking that turkey yourself, because with little slack in the system, you likely wonâ''t be going anywhere.

And, as far as days before Thanksgiving go, tomorrow is shaping up to be one of the more dismal ones for air travelers. The Air Transport Association, an organization that represents commercial aviation companies, warned today that a storm front in the Northeast will cause problems tomorrow, and today, rain and fog in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, along with a communications glitch in Dallas (the latest in a string of communications problems), have already stressed the system.

If youâ''re traveling, you might check the ATA for the latest bulletins about delays and airport closures. If youâ''re not traveling, and want to watch the air transportation system struggle with the challenges of tomorrow, check out the FAAâ''s live flight delay map. Make a game of it, look at the latest weather satellite photo, and try to predict the next airport to go red, that is, start holding planes at the gate or on the runway for more than 45 minutes before departure. You can also watch planes waiting to land stack up at major airports here.

Iâ''m so glad Iâ''m staying home this year.

Crew Adds Harmony to Space Station

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) performed an extravehicular activity today to connect the newly delivered Harmony port module to the body of the orbiting platform. Delivered earlier this month by the Discovery orbiter, Harmony is a sort of hallway that leads from the present crew modules of the ISS to a number of science laboratories that are ready to be added in upcoming missions. Its successful deployment is crucial to the construction schedule of the ISS.

In a seven-hour spacewalk, Commander Peggy Whitson and Flight Engineer Daniel Tani connected the Italian-made Harmony to the U.S-built Destiny lab, attaching most of the cables that integrate the new module with the rest of the space station, according to a statement from NASA. Attaching the last of the umbilical connections between Harmony and the ISS will take place during a follow-up spacewalk scheduled for Saturday. Preparations for that effort will mean the crew will have to curtail celebrating the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.

"With this particular crew on board, I don't know if holidays mean anything to them. They are just a hard-charging, get-it-done crew," Kenny Todd, a space station manager, said of the team known as Expedition 16. "We'll have to make sure they understand that it's Thanksgiving and take some time and take a breath."

Integration of the Harmony node sets the stage for the mission of Atlantis, due to liftoff on 6 December (see NASA's main shuttle information section for more details). The main payload for the upcoming shuttle flight will be the European-made Columbus science lab, which also will be fitted to the space station via the Harmony portal at a later date.

During today's spacewalk, Tani wished the personnel of the U.S. space agency a "Happy Thanksgiving." Many back on Earth will want to wish him and Expedition 16 a thank you of their own for their timely efforts.

[Editor's Note: Please follow the links from our previous entry on the ISS, "Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place", to prior coverage in Tech Talk.]

Misplaced Principles for Nanotechnology in the Environment, Health and Safety

It is hard to figure how the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) could have gotten it so wrong in publishing a memorandum on Principles for Nanotechnology Environmental, Health, and Safety Oversight, except of course to recognize that the first principle may be to serve the â''free marketâ'' ideology.

The memorandum lists six areas that should serve as the principles for EHS oversight

(Purpose, Current Understanding, Information Development, Risk Assessment and Risk Management, International, and Regulatory Path Forward).

Bizarrely in the first area â''Purposeâ'', the critical dimension of protecting human health and the environment gets relegated to second fiddle behind being â''cognizant of the potential benefits of nanotechnology, including health, economic and environmental benefitsâ''.

What are they thinking? Sure, it is important to recognize the benefits of nanotechnology, but only as they balance the threats that may or may not exist to human health and the environment.

Unfortunately, this canâ''t be chalked up to just poor writing, letâ''s give them more credit than that. No, instead this is the result of a strongly held belief that going forward in addressing EHS concerns from nanotechnology, the overriding principle is to not impede nanotechnologyâ''s development.

The pity of this is that they have a point. Itâ''s hard to argue to throw out the baby with bathwater when addressing health concerns about nanotechnology by just suspending all nanotechnology development.

But they have clearly misplaced their principles. Health and safety are first, preserving the so-called â''nanotechnology industryâ'' is further down the list, if on it at all.

Public Thinks NASA's Budget Is Enormous

There are wide differences between perception and reality, and then there are cavernous differences. Over the weekend, our friends at Slashdot posted an item that we missed in our recent coverage of the U.S. space program, to a study that looked at the public's perception of the amount of money NASA spends. And it's a stunner. Apparently, the average American has no idea just how much government funding the space agency receives.

The Slashdot item points to a section in an essay by The Space Review that notes Americans believe that funding for NASA accounts for 24 percent of the federal budget. In reality, of course, the percentage is much smaller, much, much smaller. Although Congress has not officially passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the final figure is likely to be held to levels currently in place, or somewhere north of US $16 billion (see NASA's current budget reports for more details). That would put the space agency's funding as a percentage of the federal budget at somewhere around 0.6 percent.

That difference in perception is shocking. The essay in The Space Review ("Sustaining Exploration: Communications, Relevance, and Value"), by Mary Lynne Dittmar, head of a Houston-based strategic planning and technical services group, focuses on strategic communications at NASA with regard to its stakeholders, particularly the U.S. government and taxpayers. Here, it finds that the agency is failing in its attempts to explain why its work is important, or even relevant, to the general public, which doesn't deny that space exploration is a worthy endeavor but finds the price of its activities overly expensive in relation to other worthwhile government projects.

Dittmar writes:

Participants in our studies carried out spontaneous â''trade studiesâ'', comparing the benefits of a space program to benefits related to a national healthcare program, or to national defense, or to the quality of education and educational opportunities in the United States, among other things....

According to many of our participants, NASA is often the loser in the trade studies described above. While NASA enjoys great positive regard, its benefits to the nation are not perceived as directly or clearly as those associated with other national programs. Although it is difficult for many space advocates to believe, this absence of specific knowledge about NASAâ''s activities is quite widespread.

In the passage from her essay that caught the eyes of the editors at Slashdot, Dittmar relates the discrepancy between what the public thinks the space agency is spending and what is really being spent. This is where the 24 percent response came from participants in her study. "Once people were informed of the actual allocations, they were almost uniformly surprised," she notes. "Our favorite response came from one of the more vocal participants, who exclaimed, 'No wonder we havenâ''t gone anywhere!'"

Dittmar suggests the solution to the perception problem may be found in both better communication from the space agency and in bolstering the relevant value of the projects it takes on, just as her study's respondents suggested:

Anecdotally, our experience is that the rationale for public opinion is less focused the cost side of the equation and more oriented toward the benefits. When asked, â''What could NASA do to be more relevant to you, personally?â'' the answers fell into two general categories: (1) NASA could become more relevant by better communicating what it does and the benefits of those activities; and (2) NASA could become more relevant by actually engaging in activities that are perceived to be of value to respondents -- including activities that involve members of the public directly, particularly young persons.

"[NASA] must first understand that real value is created in the marketplace, not mandated by policy," Dittmar concludes. "It is customer driven, not internally focused. Even more fundamentally, however, the agency and the larger space community need to have a shared understanding of what is meant by the word 'value', and why it is so important to NASAâ''s future and to the future of space exploration."

That sounds like practical advice that the administrators of the U.S. space program should emblazon on their whiteboards for as long as they are in business.

Tech museum honors companies that make the world a better place


Innovators from twenty-five companies came to San Jose this month for four days of networking parties, meetings with Silicon Valley luminaries, and introductions to venture capitalists and other potential investors. The 25 were plucked from a field of more than 700 nominations from 68 countries, in the annual Tech Museum Awards competition. Only five went home with cash prizes of $50,000 each, but the contacts made, and the Tech Museumâ''s vote of confidence, are likely worth a lot more than $50,000.

The projects didnâ''t all involve electrotechnology, computers, or the Internet. Several, for example, featured creative uses of algae, seaweed, or other aquatic plants. Fundacion Terram from Chile attaches seaweed to the nets around farmed salmon to absorb waste products from the salmon and keep the water clean. (Fundacion Terram was one of the cash-prize winners.) Consortium SudEco Industrie from Montreal harvests aquatic plants choking Senegals waterways and converts them into clean-burning pellet fuel.

Among the honorees in the electrotechnology and computer fields, San Franciscoâ''s blueEnergy, another $50,000 prize winner, teaches Nicaraguans how to construct hybrid energy systems that use wind power and solar panels. MathTrax, from Houston, Texas, automatically translates graphs and equations into sounds so blind and visually impaired students can study abstract math. Kamal Quadir from Bangladesh runs an electronic marketplace (think Craigâ''s list for traders and farmers) via cell phone. And Grameen Shakti, also from Bangladesh, trains rural women to install and repair solar home systems and cook stoves.

A complete list of the 25 honorees is here.

Congress Wants Universities to Do More to Stop Peer to Peer File Sharing

It's no secret that the entertainment industry, under the auspices of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), views college students using peer-to-peer file sharing networks as the prime perpetrators of online thievery. Now it looks like they may get a boost from Congress in their attempt to stop such copyright violations, if a tiny new provision in the huge College Opportunity and Affordability Act makes it into law. It seems that the industry views campus administrators as both partners and opponents in the fight to stop digital piracy, a notion that's frustrating many in higher education.

The bill, approved unanimously on Thursday by the House Committee on Education and Labor, requires that universities "develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity." This language set off a firestorm in the blogosphere, not only from universities, but also from fair use supporters like Public Knowledge.

The fact that the new peer-to-peer requirements appeared under the section tied to financial aid made many opponents suspicious that failure to comply would mean losing out on federal money. The Student Loan Network denounced the new provisions in their Financial Aid Podcast, calling them "a lobbying money grab from the RIAA and the MPAA" that would require schools to spend money fighting piracy instead of funding financial aid.

On Friday I talked with Tom Kiley, a press representative for the committee, and he was adamant that schools would not lose out on financial aid for failing to shut down file sharing. "If a school refuses to report to the secretary what theyâ''re doing, the Department of Education would keep on them until they do," he said. Nothing is spelled out in the bill, but if Kiley is right, it sounds like an enforcement strategy that relies more on cooperation than punishment.

All the same, it's hard to blame the universities from bristling about the Committee's decision. Most schools have already began working with the entertainment industry to address the problem: after all, thousands of students uploading and downloading files puts a strain on campus computing resources as well. Regardless of their effectiveness, it seems to me that schools really are trying to get students to stop file sharing (NYU, for example, has a strongly worded, but mostly reasonable letter to students on the subject.)

"The reality is that higher ed has worked in good faith with the entertainment industry," said Barry Toiv, a spokesperson for the American Association of Universities. The group wrote a letter opposing the bill for a number of reasons prior to the committee's vote. "Itâ''s a little disheartening when the industry turns around and seeks legislative solutions." The association, which represents 62 research universities in the US and Canada, wrote a letter urging the committee to rethink the new provisions. Instead, after the committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill, Kiley's office released a fact sheet meant to "dispel misleading information" that originally referred to opponents of the anti-piracy measures as "supporters of intellectual property theft" (After numerous complaints, Kiley said they reissued the document with changed wording).

The RIAA clearly doesn't think the schools are doing enough. "This legislation, for the first time, obligates universities to play a more active role in responding to the problem in a meaningful way. And that, in and of itself, is a very good thing, because that incentivizes investment in new music and encourages a level playing field for legal services to thrive," wrote Cara Duckworth, the Communications Director of the RIAA in an email.

What I still can't understand is why the RIAA has targeted campus networks so much more than commercial internet service providers. On Thursday, they also launched the tenth wave of litigation against users on college campuses, sending out 417 pre-litigation letters to 16 universities.

Yet, according to Kenneth Green, "college students accounted for less than 4 percent of the more than 8,400 John Doe lawsuits for illegal P2P downloading filed by the RIAA in 2004-2005." It seems like rather than addressing the changing culture of entertainment consumption, the entertainment industry is looking for easy targets. In fact, recipients of those 417 letters are encouraged to "resolve their claims" at, for a fee, of course.

It seems to me that Green sums up the strategy rather well:

Rather than address the proliferation of P2P activity in the consumer market, often aided and abetted by consumer broadband service providers, the MPAA and RIAA have opted to focus on college students, campus networks, and college administrators â'' admittedly easy (and often unsympathetic) targets. In an era of digital media, are consumers understandably confused by the Supreme Courtâ''s 1978 BetaMax decision that said they could use VCRs (and today, by extension, TIVO and similar technologies) to record â''over the airâ'' content for personal use? Probably so. But while the real, long-term solution on illegal P2P activity should focus on user education, the MPAA and RIAA apparently feel that legislation offers a quicker remedy.

Dawn of the Desktop Supercomputers

No matter how new your office computer might be, sooner or later you begin to notice that the thing just isn't running fast enough to satisfy your desire to get your work done ASAP, especially on a Friday afternoon. Of course, it couldn't be your own fault that the calculations you need to put that last crucial piece of data into the important report due on Monday are taking so long to compile. So it has to be the fault of your desktop unit, ancient relic that it is (installed in the bygone era of last month's companywide IT upgrade cycle).

That sense of rising expectations among personal computer users has caused the world's hardware vendors to pull out all the practical stops to address the need for speed with ever more exotic architectures and processors, within the financial constraints of economies of scale. Dual-core processors are now the rage, with quad-core devices hot on their heels. And pity the poor fool who has not been updated from a 32-bit architecture to a 64-bit one.

Need even more power dedicated to your own personal use whenever you want it, like right now? You could try hogging the server farm when your chips are down (pun intended), but that unsympathetic clod who calls himself a systems administrator keeps blocking your access requests with sarcastic usage request replies. Where's Moore's Law when you need it, for heaven's sake (it's nearly 5 o'clock)?

Well, hope may be on the horizon. It won't come soon enough to get you out of today's predicament, but it could give you something to dream about over the weekend.

From this week's Supercomputing 07 Conference in Reno, Nev., comes a report from The Economist, "More's Law", that says the march of the supercomputers from the chilly vaults of the computer science lab to a desktop near you is on in earnest.

The reporter for The Economist points to two small U.S. firms, SiCortex and Scalable Servers Corp., that have plans in the works to make sure you have the fastest personal computing machines on the planet available at your every whim whenever you want.

The motto of SiCortex is "Teraflops from Milliwatts." It's company website declares: 'By worrying every milliwatt, and thereby getting the heat out, SiCortex has collapsed a roomful of 64-bit computing power down onto a single backplane in a single compact cabinet...'

To this end, the Maynard, Mass., firm has just debuted its SC072 Catapult, a 72-processor, Linux-based screamer that might be able to fit into your cubicle for the mere pittance of US $15 000.

Over at Scalable Servers, in Fremont, Calif., the company boasts it 'provides modular and scalable technical computing server solutions to technical professionals who run parallel-cluster computing application or non-parallel computing tasks.'

It has also rolled out a desktop monster this month, the SSC flexBLADE, a 1500-watt modular x86 blade cluster (price not announced) that fits in a box so small you could park it next to your file cabinet.

So get those calculations completed between now and Monday, and if you have any free time left over, just think, someday soon one of these sweet rides could be yours, all yours. And you'll never have to work late again. Until the next preposterously enormous challenge is thrown your way in the unrelenting future.

Have a nice weekend.


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