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Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis Proponents Respond to Spectrum Article

Proponents of the concept of the Singularity and molecular manufacturing continue to let their displeasure be known about Spectrumâ''s series of articles on the Singularity last June.

Apparently, Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing submitted a response to Spectrum regarding Professor Richard Jonesâ'' article â''Rupturing the Nanotech Raptureâ'', but it was not published because as Nanodot suggests â''Spectrum has chosen to publish only one of the responses it received on this topic.â''

Hopefully the links I have provided to the letter in this blog entry (contained within the web pages of Spectrum by the way) have righted this perceived wrong to some extent.

The response catalogues how all the obstacles Jones identified for the mechanical engineering approach to molecular manufacturing have been addressed, if not overcome. But it does so by first offering a straw-man argument against Jones by contending that he presented these as â''showstoppersâ''.

But perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Freitasâ'' and Merkleâ''s response is the contention there has been â''zeroâ'' research in the field of mechanosynthesis over the last 15 years because of a lack of funding. This is proposed at the end of the letter to counter Jones, who apparently contends that there had been 15 years of â''intense researchâ'' on diamondoid nanomachinery.

This point is troubling because they appear to be so intent at unraveling Jonesâ'' argument that they are willing to discount the last 15 years of their lives and the thick tomes they have published arguing for diamondoid mechanosynthesis during that time.

I think it may come as a blow to the unwavering proponents of molecular manufacturing that their heroes have not been actually performing research into the field, but merely publishing speculative papersâ''dare we say engaging in â''hobby pursuitsâ''.

Letâ''s hope the funded research that Freitas and Merkle cite will look back at itself in 15 years with a little higher self-regard.

<i>Time</i> Magazine Picks the Top 50 Inventions of the Year

The editors at Time have gazed at the world of high-tech and picked the cream of the crop to appear this year. In its annual Best Inventions List, the news magazine has selected 50 innovations that hold the promise of improving our lives.

But enough talk. You just want to see the results. So without further ado, here are the winners. Coming in at Number 1 (drum roll) is The Retail DNA Test.

A start-up called 23andMe, in Mountain View, Calif., funded by Google, has created a US $399 DNA analysis kit that supposedly can study your saliva to predict the likelihood that you will suffer from any of more than 90 traits and conditions ranging from baldness to blindness. Although it has competitors (at a higher price) and detractors who worry about the wisdom of DNA testing without medical consultation, Time wrote that The Retail DNA Test's "retail genomics" kit is the 2008 Invention of the Year.

The top five inventions on the Time list are:

  1. The Retail DNA Test

  2. The Tesla Roadster

  3. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter


  5. The Large Hadron Collider

Time has also added an interactive element to its list this year, enabling readers to cast their votes on its Web site for what they think are the top inventions. As of this moment, the reader poll listed the following as the most popular: 1) Peek, a remote email reader; 2) the T-Mobile G1, the Android smartphone; 3) the MacBook, the sleek laptop from Apple; 4) the iPod Touch, the iconic phone with everything; and 5) the Eye-Fi Explore SD Card, the wireless SD card.

The Time inventions list may not be as insightful as IEEE Spectrum's annual Winners and Losers report, but we think its findings are compelling (mostly because we have covered so many of them this year in our pages;).

A lot of noise about White Spaces

Earlier this week the FCC issued a ruling on ''White Spaces,'' allowing unlicensed devices to operate in certain areas of the radio spectrum allocated to broadcast television.

This ruling affects at least three separate constituencies. First, there are the Internet companies and consumer product manufacturers, who can use this very valuable spectrum to, potentially, blanket the country with always-on wireless Internet connectivity. Next, are the broadcasters''after all, this is effectively coming out of their piece of the pie. Finally, the entertainment industry, worried about how an explosion in unlicensed devices might affect those countless theater systems that use wireless microphones.

I wasn't sure how I felt about this ruling, it is controversial, and in some ways, unprecedented. And I am connected to each of those constituencies; I live a large part of my day online, am grateful when I can pop open my laptop and get connected, frustrated when I cannot. I get my television via broadcast, not cable or satellite. And, with a son who is an actor, I attend theater regularly, and cringe when glitches in a sound system mar a performance.

The White Spaces at issue are the TV channels that, in an analog world, come across as static, in a digital world, simply trigger the screen to display a ''no signal'' message. They prevent broadcast stations in a given market from interfering with each other, and prevent problems at the edges of TV markets, say, for example, in households in New Jersey that pick up signals from both New York and Philadelphia stations. So in New York, for example, channels 2 and 4 are used for broadcast, while channel 3 is a white space; whereas in Philadelphia 3 is an active channel and 4 is a white space. The FCC reasoned that since today's wireless systems are capable of scanning for available channels and selecting only empty frequencies for transmission, such systems, at least at low power, would not interfere with television broadcasts; if they knew ahead of time which frequencies to avoid, they'd have even less of a risk of interfering.

The Commission recognized that interference is a potential problem, relying on a technical report explaining how such interference could be resolved using GPS and a registry of existing signals to prevent new devices from transmitting on those frequencies. Such a system has not been tested directly; and a coalition of Broadway producers and directors led by Dolly Parton was among the groups calling for more tests before issuing a ruling. Other opponents to the ruling included professional sports leagues, Las Vegas casinos, and a coalition of rock musicians, as well as television broadcasters and a long list of senators and representatives. Google led the charge in favor of the ruling.

The ruling as issued includes two different levels of protection against interference. First, there are devices that will use geolocation, that is, have a GPS receiver, use that receiver to determine their location, check a database for active local frequencies, and then lock out those frequencies. Such devices will be legal under the ruling.

Second, devices that don't use geolocation, but instead scan for empty frequencies, are potentially legal, but any designs must be submitted to the FCC for testing before being marketed. Essentially, instead of approving this entire class of devices, the FCC is going to evaluate each device individually.

I spoke to two experts about the topic; one, an expert in the U.S. digital television standard, the other, a specialist in theater sound and lighting systems. I didn't go through standard PR channels to clear the interviews with their employers, so both spoke on the condition I didn't attribute their comments.

To my surprise, actually, both were fairly reassuring. The TV expert said that while building the database of vacant channels will take some doing, the geolocation system seems reasonably safe. Spectrum sensing, he says, has so far failed dismally in testing, so whether this is a reasonable technical option is less clear. One thing he said was not clear from the ruling is whether the frequencies to be opened up involve all the white spaces, or just those in which there is more than one free channel in between active channels. That is, for example, if channels 22 and 25 are active, would both 23 and 24 be up for grabs, or just one of them, and if 36 and 38 are active, would 37 be left as a white space or not. ''If no adjacent channels are allowed, there is a lot less white space than otherwise,'' he says, indicating that that may still be subject to discussion.

I expected my theater expert to be as outraged as Dolly Parton but he told me that he isn't particularly worried. While it's unlikely that the geolocation registry will include every little theater company operating out of a high school gym, he says that the current generation of professional audio equipment is agile enough to deal with interference. In fact, he says, wireless mikes often operate at the same frequencies as local TV broadcasts without significant effects. And manufacturers and distributors of wireless microphones are currently assuring their customers that a ''wireless apocalypse'' is not coming.

Instead, he sees the ruling as an opportunity for the theater community. ''Imagine WiFi everywhere,'' he says, ''we could pump video around,'' generate other special effects.

So I'm somewhat reassured that what's good for Google may indeed be what's good for me.

Photo credit: hungy i

Carbon Nanotubes Arenâ¿¿t Just Graphite Anymore

The Environmental Protection Agency provided notice in the public register last week that carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are distinct from graphite.

The announcement in part reads:

This document gives notice of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requirements potentially applicable to carbon nanotubes (CNTs). EPA generally considers CNTs to be chemical substances distinct from graphite or other allotropes of carbon listed on the TSCA Inventory.

Proponents of greater regulation of CNTs score this as a victory for greater safety precautions surrounding nanomaterials.

However, it is not clear what real-world impact this will have. Last weekâ''s announcement is more or less just a clarification of the EPAâ''s announced position on CNTs back in 2007. In addition, the position merely requires that any company wanting to manufacture or import carbon nanotubes submit a Pre Manufacturing Notice (PMN) to the EPA.

So, it is not absolutely clearâ''at least to meâ''if a company in Europe or Asia that does not import CNTs, but instead imports say a bicycle that uses CNTs in its material matrix, will be required to submit a PMN. If not, the result will be an extra burden for US manufacturers who want to make products out of CNTs, but not so for companies abroad.

While the example of Cheap Tubes Inc. continues to get bandied about as a reason to create these new regulations, itâ''s not altogether clear how much importing and exporting of â''free nanoparticlesâ'' (those nanoparticles not integrated into a material matrix) actually goes on.

While further regulations in just about anything are a welcome alternative in todayâ''s atmosphere, they still remain tricky because they often result in unintended consequences. In this case, the result could be little if any improvement in peopleâ''s safety but instead handicapped US manufacturers.

Karp, Computational Complexity, and Sudokus

Canâ''t help yourself from doing the occasional Sudoku, despite the mindlessness of all the endless 1-9 number counting and pointless remembering, not to mention the not very interesting logical tricks? Then you might like to know that Richard Karp, a 73-year-old computing theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, has just been awarded one of the 2008 Kyoto Prizes, which this year honor pioneers in information science. The prizes, established by Japanâ''s Inamori Foundation, include a cash gift of 50 million yen and are unusual in that recipients are selected partly on the basis of exceptionally admirable personal traits.

In the 1970s, Karp did foundational work in computational complexity, inventing a way of classifying how susceptible problems are to straight-forward algorithmic procedures. In his schema, as Inamoriâ''s press release says, â''Class P represents problems for which polynomial-time algorithms of deterministic solutions exist; Class NP represents problems for which polynomial-time algorithms of deterministic solutions exist, including the sub-class of NP-Completeâ''the hardest-to-solve problems.â''

As it happens, the humble Sudoko is an example of an NP-Complete problem, as a news story reported in IEEE Spectrum several years ago. In essence, as every Sudoku player will have noticed, though itâ''s extremely easy to verify a Sudoko solution, itâ''s devilishly difficultâ''theoretically impossible, in factâ''to adopt a solving approach that will always work efficiently. Maybe this is what makes the Sudoku so damned seductive.

Famed Aviator Fossett's Remains Identified

The mystery over the disappearance of the world's most famous aviator has been solved.

Using DNA testing, officials in California have identified the remains of legendary daredevil Steve Fossett from the wreckage of a plane crash in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near the Nevada border.

Fossett disappeared during a solo flight in a civilian aircraft on 3 September 2007. Despite a massive search and rescue effort in the region by state and local authorities lasting weeks, no traces of the 63-year-old aviation pioneer were found. Acting on a plea from his wife, a court in Illinois declared Fossett legally dead in February. Subsequently, a hiker found personal items and debris from Fossett's single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon on 29 September 2008.

According to an online report yesterday from BBC News, investigators examined two large bones from the site to conclude that the human remains were Fossett's. The aviator's shoes and driver's license were also found in a follow-up search.

"A California Department of Justice Forensics lab has determined that items containing DNA â'¿ match James Stephen Fossett's DNA," a police coroner stated.

The finding officially brings closure to one of the most perplexing disappearances in recent years in the United States.

Peggy Fossett, the adventurer's widow, said the discovery of the bones last week is "another step in the process of completing the investigation into the tragic accident that took Steve's life."

In the Wikipedia entry for Steve Fossett, he is described as "an American businessman, aviator, sailor, and adventurer and the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in a balloon," as well as "best known for many world records, including five nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth: as a long-distance solo balloonist, as a sailor, and as a solo flight fixed-wing aircraft pilot."

We covered his disappearance and the search effort to find him in previous entries in this space last year. Please see Family of Famous Aviator Concede Defeat and Aviation Pioneer Fossett Missing After Flight for more on his life and death.

We send along our heartfelt condolences to the Fossett family. He was an inspiration to us all.

The devolution of voting technology


I just voted. I drew thin little lines with a generic black ballpoint pen on a paper ballot resting on a cardboard tableâ''I wouldnâ''t go so far as to call it a booth. Then I slipped the ballot into a large paper folder (for privacy), walked across the room, and put the ballot into a big cardboard box. It didnâ''t feel very official; certainly it lacked ceremony. (At least, however, itâ''s fully recyclable.) In fact, the only reason I really feel like I voted is the oval sticker Iâ''ll be wearing on my sweater the rest of the day.


It made me nostalgic for the 80s, when I voted using New York Cityâ''s mechanical monsters (and envious of those who still use them today) When I walked into the boothsâ''and they were really boothsâ''and pulled the curtain closed, I felt like the Wizard of Oz, all powerful. You flipped switches to make your choicesâ''good-sized switches, you moved them with your whole hand, not just a finger. And then, after checking over the big board in front of you, making sure you got it right, you pulled the big handle with both hands, to lock in your vote and open the curtain; it took a little effort, it made you feel like you were really registering your vote.


Moving to California I left big mechanical voting machines behind. I voted paper ballots for a while. Still, these were more satisfying than todayâ''s paper ballots; you marked them with a fat black marker, not a little pen line. And then you handed them to a poll worker and watched him feed it into the scanner right in front of you; again, you had this sense of closure, that your vote had been recorded. I moved on to punch card ballots, long before I knew that the little punched out pieces were called chads, I thought of them as confetti. The little tool used to punch the cards was a little hard to handle, the circular handle not very ergonomic, but still, when you made a selection it poked through the ballot with a satisfying thunk.


And then came touch screen. We were early adopters here, and found out early that touch screens had problems. My first couple of touch screen elections were only mildly annoying; the systems kept trying to get me to go back and vote for more judges, more city council members, when I was trying to target my votes to a select few. In the 2006 election, though, the touch screen system turned my polling place into election night chaos, as the new printers, designed to provide a paper trail and make the systems more reliable, ran out of paper, locking up the voting machines. Sometime after the polls officially closed, poll workers scrambled to rip sample ballots out of voter information guides, and handed those out to people in line, reassuring us that we just needed to mark our choices and they would, eventually, be counted.


So I wasnâ''t surprised to find that touch screen voting is over in my district, and weâ''re back to paper ballots. I just wish there were a way to make these little marks on paper feel more official.

Share your election 08 experiences here.

Extremist Engineers, Election Day Edition

The story starts out the usual way: political lawn signs are secretly stolen and replaced with the opposition's political lawn signs.

Shawn Turschak, the owner of the pilfered signs, decides to fight back: he runs wires from his house and hooks the signs into a power source for an electric pet fence. The goal being to deliver a shocking surprise to the next person who tries to steal his political signage.

The problem is, the next person is a 9-year-old boy. Enter angry parents, police, and media.

No harm done, in any case--the little boy was fine and probably learned an important lesson about other people's property that day. But am I wrong to think it seems a little, um, extreme to booby-trap a $1.10 corrugated lawn sign with a $200 pet fence?


Turschak, who has a degree in electrical engineering, said he tested the shock on himself while wiring the signs, and did so again while a reporter watched Wednesday, touching both signs repeatedly without flinching.

A while back we ran a story on extremist engineers; political scientist Steffen Hertog and sociology professor Diego Gambetta analyzed the records of 404 people from 30 countries who had engaged in political violence between 2005 and 2007. The academic pursuit most represented in this batch was engineering, of the electrical, computer and civil varieties.

â''Engineering," Hertog said by way of explanation, "seems to attract a larger share of people drawn to rule-bound systems.â''

Carbon Nanotubes for Loudspeakers

Nanotechnology labs around the world do love to experiment with carbon nanotubes, often offering up some rather peculiar contraptions made out of the wonder material like the â''Nano Radioâ''.

But these lab curiosities are often just examples of what can be done with carbon nanotubes, theyâ''re not really intended to lead to commercial products.

But the latest one described in the October 29, 2008 online edition of Nano Letters and further detailed over at Nanowerk does seem to have commercial aspirations.

Dr. KaiLi Jiang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics & Tsinghua-Foxconn Nanotechnology Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and his collaborators see commercial possibilities for the carbon nanotubes loudspeakers they have developedâ''a demonstration of which can be seen in the video below.

While Jiang believes that the technology might create applications not yet considered, one that has been proposed would "be laptop computers where the current audio system could be replaced simply by putting a transparent loudspeaker film over the display area".

Unfortunately, in the same Nanowerk article in which this application is proposed the next sentence offers up â''application in revolutionary new design concepts for tomorrow's electronics such as the Nokia Morph mobile phoneâ'' as a viable commercial usage.

Iâ''ve heard on fairly good authority that few involved in the Morph project were looking at a commercial product as much as they were looking for a way to demonstrate the advancements in plastic electronics. Better to leave that particular â''future applicationâ'' off your list.

Hubble Telescope Back in the Photography Business

The Hubble Space Telescope has winked back to life and resumed sending images of the universe never seen before.

NASA announced last week that its engineers had successfully revived the control computer onboard the orbiting science platform and pointed its far-seeing camera at distant galaxies to capture an astounding photo.

The Hubble had been out of commission for a month before the complicated workaround succeeded (see NASA: Hubble Telescope Fixed and Ready to Perform).

Last Thursday, the vehicle's Wide Field Planetary Camera transmitted an image of gravitationally interacting galaxies back to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., proving that the Hubble was back in working order. Astronomers believe the two galaxies, known together as Arp 147, some 400 million light-years away, at one time collided with one another. The photo from the Hubble was assembled from images collected by the camera's blue, infrared, and visible light filters.

According to a BBC article online, NASA has decided to postponed its shuttle mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble back to April at the earliest, in order to work on a control unit held in reserve since 1990 in storage. The servicing mission, known as STS-25, was originally to have launched this month aboard Atlantis. Instead, NASA will push ahead on 14 November with its next flight to the International Space Station, STS-126, aboard Endeavour.

"Our plan overall takes something on the order of about six-and-a-half months from now," said Preston Burch, the Hubble's manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "There's about a month or so devoted to inspecting and resolving any of the performance issues associated with [the spare unit]; about three months for environmental tests; and then about two to two-and-a-half months to do final testing and shipping down to the Kennedy Space Center and getting it installed on the orbiter."

In addition to swapping the reserve Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit for its balky original, the STS-125 crew will need to perform a long list of upgrades to the Hubble to keep it as a viable observatory for years to come. These include: replacing batteries and gyroscopes; installing the new Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph; and repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet in the next few years, it will have to be a well-prepared and executed mission to serve as the final chance to rejuvenate a science platform that has made so much history in its lifetime.


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