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Nanotechnology and the Glazed Over Look You Get When Describing It

Long ago I lost count on the times I have tried to explain what nanotechnology is to friends and family. Despite the large number of times I have engaged in this fruitless enterprise, the reaction process is striking similar in most cases.

First you get earnest interestâ''they are your friends and family after all. Then you begin to see the confusion start to set in, which is usually accompanied by what seems to you a very strange question. After trying to answer the question, the confusion has become so great that they have completely lost interest and they are staring off into the ether dreaming of when you are going to shut up.

After listening to Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University conduct man-on-the-street interviews for the BBCâ''s Street Science radio program, I couldnâ''t help but think about the times I have engaged in the joyless job of describing nanotech.

Against insurmountable odds Professor Ryan sallies forth again and again to meet his enemyâ'¿umh I mean public. Unbowed after getting responses from university professors who confess all they know about nanotechnology is â''grey gooâ'', he tries to get his interviewees to grasp some basic concept about nanotechnology.

Itâ''s hard to know if he really succeeds with anyone. But after a lengthy and somewhat complicated explanation to a couple of how nanotechnology is involved in 2-in-1 shampoo, which initially elicits the typical â''Isnâ''t that interestingâ'' response, the man asks something like â''Wouldnâ''t it make more sense to use this technology for treating diseases rather than making shampoo?â''

If I were Professor Ryan, I would walk away with the feeling that this one question alone made it all worth it.

Computer Pioneers Celebrating Anniversary of Interactive Computing Urge Industry to Go Back to the Future


Yesterday, the pioneers of the computing revolution gathered together at Stanford Universityâ''s Memorial Auditorium to celebrate the birthday of interactive computing. On Dec 9th, 1968 Doug Engelbart and his team from the Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) gave a 90-minute demo that rocked a world used to punch cards and teletype machines. The demonstration included hypertext linking, multiple windows, real-time text editing, shared screen teleconferencing, and the computer mouse. Perhaps even more revolutionary, it showed that a computer could help people with more varied tasks then mathematical computationâ''like managing a shopping list (something I do on my computer to this day).

After watching clips of the demo, the crowd at the anniversary celebration gave Engelbart, sitting in the audience, a long and enthusiastic standing ovation. Then a panel of folks that were there at the beginning talked about that break through demonstration and the evolution of computing since.

The mood was one of nostalgia; during breaks, black and white slides of longhaired computer researchers flashed on a screen, accompanied by the 1968 hit â''Those Were the Daysâ''.

There was a lot of talk of what weâ''ve gainedâ''better search and universal access make computing a far more powerful proposition than it was back in the 60s. But there was also talk of what weâ''ve lost. Said Andries van Dam, a professor of computer science at Brown University who attended the 1968 demonstration, â''This vision hasnâ''t been realized. We can do a lot of the individual things that were done in [Engelbartâ''s] system better, but they donâ''t play nice together. They had everything interoperable in this superrich environment. Weâ''ve lost that.â''

â''Iâ''m looking for a reintegration of the various components so we can go back to the future,â'' van Dam said to a burst of applause, pointing out, in particular, the ease of multimedia teleconferencing on the 1968 system. But, he mused, â''I donâ''t see how we are going to get there.â''

Boston Power's Sonata Batteries Coming to H-P Laptops


Back last fall I saw a prototype of a safe, long-lasting, environmentally friendly lithium-ion battery, built by Westborough, Mass., start-up Boston Power. Company founder Christina Lampe-Onnerud, who IEEE Spectrum tagged in its March issue as â''The Lady and the Li-On,â'' called me this week with happy news. Hewlett-Packard was to announce today that it will be using Boston Powerâ''s Sonata lithium-ion cells to power its HP Enviro Series notebook batteries.

These batteries will come with a three-year warranty, the longest battery warranty offered to date. Seems that H-P is convinced that the Sonata cells will indeed hold up longer than traditional designs, as Lampe-Onnerud told Spectrum last year. However, H-Pâ''s promotion for these batteries will be playing up the green angle more than the performance.

Lampe-Onnerud is thrilled. â''Our company is only three years old,â'' she says, and â''H-P is number one in the laptop marketplace. Itâ''s such a lovely way for us to end 2008.â''

H-P will be shipping the new battery packs early next year, as replacement batteries only, not built into new laptops. â''That was the way to get into consumersâ'' hands as soon as possible,â'' Lampe-Onnerud says.

For Boston-Power, this may work out just fine. Youâ''d have to think that in the current economy, people are going to be hanging onto older laptops longer instead of trading them in for new models, which means a bigger market for replacement batteries.

H-P has not announced pricing yet, but, says Lampe-Onnerud, sheâ''s assured that itâ''s quite reasonable.

Caption: Boston-Power founder Christina Lampe-Onnerud

Many Young People "Digitally Hard-wired" Since Childhood

A new book by a U.S. psychiatrist argues that new technology may be physically changing the way our brains work.

In iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (HarperCollins 2008), Dr. Gary Small and wife Gigi Vorgan argue that young people who have grown up with videogames, text messaging, websites, and the other trappings of the virtual world are beginning to show signs of behavioral differences compared to previous generations.

Small, the Director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, says research shows that twenty-somethings are developing unique brains in response to a nonstop cycle of information overload. Still, while this high-speed mental activity may be leading to a cohort of wired overachievers, it does have its negative side effects: attention deficit disorder, social isolation, and online addiction, among others.

The authors write: "Besides influencing how we think, digital technology is altering how we feel, how we behave, and the way in which our brains function."

In an interview with the Associated Press, Small admits that his theory has not been proven but that constant exposure to digital technologies most likely is at the root of much of the social dysfunction witnessed in classrooms and workplaces by the younger set.

Small calls this group digital natives, those who have been "digitally hard-wired since toddlerhood." He says his book is aimed at helping digital natives improve their social skills, as well as making others aware of the implications of new technology on behavior.

What does Small think is the solution to too much immersive technology? It's a page right out of the behavioral psychology textbook: adaptation. And he and his co-author offer a "technology toolkit" with suggestions (such as "aerobicizing your mind") for those who have become overloaded with high-tech distractions.

If this all sounds like a contemporary update of past arguments against the perils of new technology to young minds (see the dangers of television circa 1970, for example), it's because it is. As with previous generations, youngsters today will most likely turn out fine in the long run, a little quirkier and more awkward perhaps but still just as responsible and healthy.

Just in case, though, it would not be a bad thing to remind those reaching maturity now that they need to spend a little more quality time with their friends and family in the real world.

.Tel Me What I'm Missing

I'm bewildered by all the buzz surrounding the Internetâ''s new â''.telâ'' top-level domain. This new entity, sponsored by London-based Telnic, is intended to be a global repository of contact information for individuals and businesses. The twist here is that this information will be encoded into DNS (Domain Name System) records, allowing it to be distributed to the 12 million or so name servers around the world. When folks look me upâ''perhaps as BewilderedDave.telâ''the DNS will not direct them to a Website, as it typically does. Rather, they will access my contact information directly from the records that are returned by whatever name servers their computers are using to look up IP addresses.

That much is clear. Itâ''s also apparent from the news coverage and the descriptions on Telnicâ''s Website that the company has put mechanisms in place for those with .tel domains to control access to their contact information, should they not wish all of it to be publicly available. Whatâ''s confusing is why this service would prove all that helpful to either individuals or to businesses.

Consider the scenario Telnic uses to explain how an individual using a .tel domain can guard his or her privacy. In the companyâ''s illustrative example, Alice ( meets someone named Gary. (Bob is occupied in another role.) She informs Gary about her .tel address and gives him the URL for a login page at a Website run by Telnic. He then uses Telnicâ''s Website to create a â''friend request message,â'' which gets transmitted to Alice. She receives the message, reading within it a short greeting from Gary reminding her that this â''friendingâ'' request comes from the guy she just met at the local pub. Alice then puts the wheels in motion to allow Gary to obtain access to parts of her contact information that she doesnâ''t share with the general public.

Obviously, Gary didnâ''t impress Alice enough when they first met. If he had, she surely would have just given him her phone number then and there, instead of asking him to jump through hoops.

Telnicâ''s description explains in detail how the friending scheme worksâ''how encrypted contact information is put into a subdomain of using Garyâ''s public encryption key so only he can read it. Telnic further explains that if Alice has a falling out with Gary, â''she simply stops publishing private contact dataâ'' at that subdomain. Telnicâ''s explanation is silent, however, on what to do about the fact that Gary may still retain Aliceâ''s phone number, written perhaps in a small black book.

I suppose Alice could change her phone number, cutting off Gary without irritating too many of her other friends because theyâ''ll be using the always-up-to-date to reach her from their Internet-enabled mobile phones. But how about Aliceâ''s grandmother?

To me, the friending mechanism seems too cumbersome, and the actions needed to cut someone off are too drastic. I am also skeptical about how useful it might be for reaching businesses, although they will in general publish contact information thatâ''s always freely available to the general public.

The problem is that I wonâ''t know the .tel domain name of the business I want to reach. How can I figure out the .tel name for, say, the new pizza joint that just opened down the street? Even if I remember that the name of the place is Joeâ''s Pizza, using is more likely to return information about a restaurant in Los Angeles than the one in my home town. So Iâ''d be more inclined to Google Joeâ''s Pizza, using as much information as I have about it to find its Website, where I can look up its contact information easily enough.

Perhaps Iâ''m just too mired in late-20th-century thinking to see the value of the new service. Somebody please tell me what Iâ''m missing.

Nanosystems Author Launches His Own Blog

Some of those who read Eric Drexlerâ''s books like Nanosystems or Engines of Creation were so inspired by his vision of molecular manufacturing they started websites and blogs promoting many of his ideas.

Now we can get the up-to-date thoughts of Drexler on a broad range of subjects concerning science and technology on his new blog Metamodern.

It will be interesting to see if Drexler and his disciples see eye-to-eye on a number of subjects.

It reminds me of a scene from Martin Scorseseâ''s The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus gets the opportunity to confront Paul and argue that he did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. To which Paul replies: "I donâ''t care whether you are Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world and thatâ''s all that matters.... I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed."

As recently as last year, Drexler seemed to be opening up the possibility that the avenue towards atomically precise manufacturing may not necessarily be through self-replicating assemblers (nanobots).

Despite this nanobots have seemingly taken on an unavoidable consequence in the publicâ''s image of nanotechnology. It seems to have become what they need and what they believe when it comes to the subject of nanotechnology. Then again science is not quite like religion, itâ''s a little more difficult to create the truth.

The Armor of the Future is Armani

The soldier is modeling the 2030 Future Soldier Concept at the ASC 2008 exhibition hall, which runs from about 10:00 am until 6:30 pm. Showing off his Star Wars attire, he's all good posture and game face, but when I run into him in the elevator at the end of the day, he looks like he wants to unzip his own skin. I assume it's because the faux armor is heavy. "No," he says miserably. "The fabric is really itchy." But the next morning he's back, and you would never know he's remotely uncomfortable. That Army training is formidable.

Before you get too excited, I should mention that this is what the US Army plans to put on our soldiers around 2030. If you want to see it before that, you'll have to stick with your local Star Wars convention.

The material may not be carbon nanotube fiber with electronic-based ink circuits, but it is in fact Armani. Dutch Degay of the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachussetts says his group got it as part of a last run of Armani fabric because it was such a perfect visual match for the nanotube fiber and e-ink circuit material they wanted for their concept demonstration. When they first got the material, it was a lovely shade of cream. Then they heated it up to 140 degrees so that it could be dyed the tasteful brown shade you see above. "We totally ruined it," Dutch says, a little spitefully.

Star Wars-style hologram conferencing at the Army Science Conference


Help me, Obi Wan. You're my only hope.

Let's recap: the Election Night CNN hologram was not actually a hologram. It looked like a hologram to you and me, but to Wolf Blitzer it was just a big 2D screen. It was processed later, and repackaged for our viewing pleasure. But it was not a real hologram.

But here at ASC 2008 we have more authentic hologram technology. The only problem is, anyone who submits to the process ends up looking a bit like recurring Futurama character Richard Nixon's head in a bell jar

The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California is responsible for this foray into actual 3D. It's not technically a hologram, as holograms are made with lasers and this technology uses mirrors to reflect lights, but it's functionally close enough. ITC's Andrew Young says that while this is a proof of concept, eventually it would be possible to do a full scale hologram, either full-size or table size.

They weren't very forthcoming about what military-specific application this would have. It's not quite as cut-and-dried as The BEAR.

Star Wars is everting one technology at a time.

Can Science Stand Up to Politics in the Nanotech and Food Debate?

Back in October there was a fair amount of uproar on the nano blogosphere about the role of nanotechnology in food. This hue and cry was in part informed by the politically charged, but scientifically challenged, screed that came from the Friends of the Earth back in March of this year Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agriculture, which I discussed previously when it was originally released.

While Richard Jones over at his Soft Machines blog gave his typical reasoned and scientific, not to mention common sense, discussion of the issue, in the face of a politically astute group like the Friends of the Earth reason and science quickly get drowned out by hyperbole.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the situation is summed up over at TNTLog which suggests that maybe we should focus on the â''safetyâ'' aspect of food rather than the â''nanoâ'' aspect. This should serve as a memo to scientists when discussing this issue with the more politically agile. Sort of like Bill Clinton's campaign reminder: It's the economy, stupid!

Of course, the term â''nanotechnologyâ'' makes for a far more attractive boogey man than say â''encapsulationâ'' or â''food processingâ''. While the term â''processed foodâ'' has been thrown around like it was some disease for years, it hasnâ''t seemed to slow peopleâ''s desire to eat it.

So, when your first boogey man doesnâ''t seem to change peopleâ''s behavior, or alter government regulations on the food industry, trot out a new one: nanotechnology.

For those who would like to get a handle on the safety of food and nanotechnology, I direct you to this webcast of a lecture given by Frans Kampers who runs the BioNT labs at Wageningen University in central Holland.

There are few people who have dedicated themselves more to the subject of nanotechnology and food than Dr. Kampers, and this lecture gives you a pretty good idea of what the purpose of nanotechnology in food is all about, and how safe or dangerous it may be.

A Winner After All?

Last year about this time, as Spectrum's editors were putting the finishing touches on the annual Winners & Losers special report, we were collectively scratching our heads over whether a package of high-speed wireless networking chips designed to transfer video signals between home entertainment devices was a winning idea or a loser. Sure, getting rid of wires is indisputably a good thing. But would Si-Beam, a startup created by professors at the University of California at Berkeley, be able to solve a tremendous engineering problemâ''reliably routing data from, say, a cable box to a TV set at 4 gigabits per second over the millimeter wave frequency band which requires near-perfect alignment of antennasâ''using cheap components that would have a negligible effect on the cost of plasma screen TV or a home videogame console?

We took the bold stance ofâ'¿letting our readers decide in our online You Tell Us feature. Fast forward a year, and the picture is a little clearer. Consumer electronics giants Panasonic and Samsung are investing in Si-Beam, and the WirelessHD consortium that is working to improve and promote its technology now includes other big hitters such as Sony and Intel. These companies probably wouldnâ''t bet on Si-Beamâ''s data transfer technique as the future of wireless home networking if they didnâ''t have it on good authority that the company will get a commercial version of its chipset ready to send and receive high-definition movies and â''Gilliganâ''s Islandâ'' reruns some time in 2009. Itâ''s got the look of a winner.


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