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Nanotechnology and Risk: What can the government do?

Congressional hearings were held yesterday before the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee to determine if enough is being done by the governmentâ''primarily in the form of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)â''in assessing the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials, like carbon nanotubes.

Back in 2005 the committee decided something needed to be done in establishing and funding a federal strategy to address these risks. A year later the committee submitted a report that was widely criticized as being too little too late.

And as recently as this past August the Nanotechnology Environmental Health Initiative (NEHI), the working group given the charge by the committee to address these issues, submitted a pared-down research prioritization list, which was also attacked by having little guidance on its implementation.

The non-governmental groups (NGOs) involved in this issue pretty much have the opinion â''if you listen to us, we can fix all the problems we see with your proposals.â'' Including restructuring the NNI so an independent body exists within the NNI to deal with environmental and health risks.

I am sure this will all get sorted out and all the parties with their fingers in the honey jar will get their taste. But really? Is creating a new department within the NNI, or having more details in the implementation plan for the required research, or even having better accounting of how much of the NNI budget goes to risk research going to be what makes us safer?

Aside from well-formulated research priorities and more funding, I would just be interested to hear how you change determining the toxicology of a substance from chemistry to size.

Open Source Software's Legal Muscle Scores a Victory

Score one for free software. As Monsoon Multimedia learned the hard way, just because software has no cost doesn't mean that it has no restrictions. Yesterday, the pro-bono legal team at the Software Freedom Law Center announced that they'd reached a settlement in the first ever lawsuit filed over the General Public License. The GPL protects open source software by allowing anyone to copy, modify and redistribute the software only if they pass those rights on to the next user.

Many companies make use of open source software in consumer products and fully comply with the GPL by posting the source code on their websites.

The software involved in this case was a program called BusyBox, a lightweight package of common Unix utilities commonly used in embedded systems. It appears that Monsoon Multimedia, the defendant, used the code in their Hava product (a Slingbox alternative that allows remote television viewing and recording via PC) without making the source code available--a violation of the GPL.

What's weird is that this violation ever required legal action. Before the Software Freedom Law Center existed, most GPL enforcement was handled by the Free Software Foundation. I've talked with former and current employees of both groups and they repeatedly emphasize that all they care about is compliance, not retribution. Most companies are happy to comply when they find out it's relatively painless and costs no money. According to Eben Moglen, the law center's chairman, who spoke to IEEE Spectrum, most violators simply misunderstand what the license requires, and comply after a little prodding.

When I heard that the lawsuit was filed, it surprised me that Monsoon hadn't been cooperative--all they had to do was make a web page that provided source code. Over at Linux-Watch, they speculated that Monsoon might actually have been looking for a legal fight:

Interestingly, Monsoon Multimedia is run by a highly experienced lawyer named Graham Radstone. According to his corporate biography, Radstone has an MA in Law from the University of Cambridge, England, and held the top legal spot at an unnamed "$1 billion private multinational company."

But it now looks like they simply bungled the situation, with the settlement requiring them to fork out an "undisclosed financial consideration." It appears that the whole thing was nothing more than a case of corporate foot-dragging and bone-headed customer relations. It's not like Monsoon was the only company misusing BusyBox--the developers used to post a "hall of shame" on their website--but Monsoon made the mistake of admitting in their own public forum that they were in violation after a user asked if Hava boxes ran Linux.

At the beginning of September, a Monsoon Multimedia representative confirmed that the device used both Linux and BusyBox, and that they planned on making the source code available. Aaron Murray, the user who started the thread back in March, told me that he began emailing tech support about the violation but got no response until the representative began the "unpleasant" forum exchange (read the thread for an example of why using "humorous" threats are a bad idea). The representative claimed that they planned to post the source code, but several weeks passed without action. The whole thing blew up when the news hit Slashdot, and the developers looked to the Software Freedom Law Center for help.

Legal director Dan Raviture told me that after a week of no replies from Monsoon, they decided to file suit. "This lawsuit was a last resort." he said. "If you wait too long you start to prejudice your own rights." In this case, the strong-arm strategy paid off--Monsoon Multimedia has now complied with the GPL and the BusyBox developers are a little richer for their trouble.

Not So Fast: Judge Stops U.S. Patent Rules Changes

Federal Judge James Cacheris of the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favor of a motion filed by GlaxoSmithKline, which temporarily stops the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from instituting new patent rules that were due to go into effect tomorrow. For a summary of what those rules changes mean for your or your company's inventions, read "How the U.S. Patent Office's New Patent Rules Affect You."

Space Station Woes Affect Shuttle Schedule

New problems at the International Space Station (ISS) have forced the crew of the Discovery orbiter to master the art of improvisation.

During yesterday's third spacewalk, a scheduled maneuver to deploy a large solar array, astronauts discovered a tear in the material holding the solar panels. This forced NASA to halt the deployment in place until ground-based engineers could figure out how to fix the problem.

This came on the heels of another impromptu glitch that has delayed the installation of the shuttle's main payload for this mission, called STS-120. On Sunday, the newest member of the ISS's current crew, Daniel Tani, found metal debris in the housing of a rotator joint used to align the existing portside solar array to the sun. His spacewalk was also cut short so that this problem could be better understood, as well.

(See our blog entry from Monday.)

Both incidents have set back the complex timing of a spacewalk agenda that was to be highlighted by the integration of the newly arrived Harmony port module.

Now, the spacewalk construction work schedule will have to be changed on the fly, NASA announced this morning. Instead of stepping out into space to attempt to fix the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint tomorrow, which was a workaround itself, the shuttle's astronauts are now planning to repair the nearly meter long rip in the portside solar array wing (called the P6 4B).

The American space agency said the switch gives them the option to schedule another solar-array repair spacewalk during STS-120 if needed, during a mission that has already been extended a day to overcome the initial setback.

Onboard the space station today, the commander of Discovery, Pamela Melroy, said her crew is prepared to adjust to the fluid situation as NASA managers come to grips with it. This could mean extending the shuttle's stay at the station and cramming for procedures dictated to them from Houston as they are developed (which is usually frowned upon in the well-rehearsed nature of spacewalk routines).

"I think we're kind of in the groove right now, so if the ground decides that's the right thing to do and they ask us to do it, we'll be ready to support it," Melroy said.

Stay tuned for further adventures as the ongoing drama of mission STS-120 continues.

The RFID invasion gets Cosmic

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Remember the first microprocessor to enter your home? It probably arrived tucked inside a calculator. But it seemed only moments before there were more microprocessors in your life than you could count.

Right now RFID, at least in my life, is on that cusp, between the first couple of tags to walk through the door (on four legs each, we chipped our cats) and the explosion into ubiquity.

The coolest RFID gizmo I've seen? An RFID toy (six tags plus a reader) my son got for his ninth birthday: Cosmic Catch.

Forget electronic wallets and product tracking tags for Walmart. Forget Fast-Tracks and Easy Passes. Itâ''s the toy business that is making the most creative use of RFID technology. (Guess that was true in the early days of microprocessors as well; remember Speak N Spell?)

Cosmic Catch wasnâ''t the first RFID toy on the market; that honor either went to the Little Tikes MagicCook Kitchen or Bandaiâ''s Naoru-kun dollâ''both used sensors in toy food and other accessories to trigger comments. Not particularly revolutionary.

But Cosmic Catch wowâ''d me because it is a toy that would not be possible without RFID technology. It comes with six colored bands that go around childrenâ''s palms, these contain the sensors, and a rubberized ball, this holds the reader and batteries. It is programmed for several games. In the simplest, and my favorite, one child starts out holding the ball, and the synthesized voice announces â''throw to redâ'' â''throw to yellowâ'' â''throw to blueâ'' etc. Throw to the wrong person, and it emits an exploding sound, then announces the number of successful completions. Simple, addictive fun, and not possible without RFID (OK, one could have a parent up on a ladder acting as the omniscent judge, but the best thing about this gizmo is that nobody complains that a ball is playing favorites or being unfair).

A Hasbro spokesman told me they have a second RFID toy on the marketâ''the hyperslide, a version of tabletop footballâ''and more are likely to come. For now, though, Iâ''m going to savor this moment in history when RFID is more cool than commonplace.

Lunar X Prize Still Up For Grabs: Can Competitions Actually Produce Successful Spacecraft?

In the New Mexico desert on Saturday, failure took the form of a fireball shredding the rocket engine of MOD, a spacecraft that resembles a metal snowman perched on a tripod. It was the final straw in what John Carmack, the creator of the video game DOOM, who funded the attempt, called "officially a bad day." His team, Armadillo Aerospace, have been working on vertical take-offs and landings for several years, and they were the only one of nine registered groups to even make an attempt. He told Will Pomerantz, the director of space projects for the X Foundation, that "this feels worse than last year," when Armadillo also came up short.

It seems like R & D contests are all the rage right now, but for spectators they're hard to watch. Would many people watch a NASCAR race where no cars made it to the finish line?

The Northrop Grumman Lunar X Prize is a contest modeled on the Ansari X Prize won by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne last year. There are similar challenges for everything from energy-efficient cars to light-weight tethers and wireless power transmitters. They're attractive to the government agencies like NASA because private industry takes on the initial risky investment, which often costs more than the prize money is worth.

Like Spaceship One's early successes, The Armadillo Aerospace team has had some promising tests this summer. Even at Holloman Airforce Base on Saturday, they had glimmering moments. The Level 1 challenge, worth $350,000, first requires the spacecraft to rise 50 meters into the air, travel 100 meters horizontally, and land safely. The team ably made that trip twice. But the second part of the challenge required them to pilot MOD back to the original launch pad. On this second leg of their third attempt of the day, the rocket motor failed and MOD fell to the ground. When the team tried substituting the engine from their larger Pixel vehicle, it burst into flames, ending the day on a fiery note (see the video of the attempts here).

In a recent Spectrum interview on Sputnik's 50th anniversary, Arthur C. Clarke talked about his support for private-enterprise space endeavors:

CLARKE: During 2006, I followed with interest the emergence of this new breed of â''Citizen Astronautsâ'' and private space enterprise. Before the current decade is out, fee-paying passengers will be experiencing sub-orbital flights aboard privately funded passenger vehicles, built by a new generation of engineer-entrepreneurs with an unstoppable passion for space. (Iâ''m hoping I could still make such a journey myself). And over the next 50 years, thousands of people will gain access to the orbital realmâ''and then, to the Moon and beyond.

The Ansari X PRIZE changed the future of personal spaceflight when it inspired the creation of SpaceShipOne by Burt Rutan. Now the Google Lunar X PRIZE can encourage a new fleet of private spacecraft to take humanity back to the Moon. I have endorsed and backed both these efforts as excellent ways to catalyze private investment and citizen involvement in space.

It would be easy to use the second year of Lunar X Prize failure and other winnerless challenges (like DARPA's Mojave race) to claim that some things are best left to government research. But doing so overlooks the fact that making cars that drive themselves or precision rocket engines is really hard, no matter who does it. Even in the Cold War space race, the best technicians and engineers in the USSR and the United States accidentally blew up rockets left and right.

For such risky endeavors it makes sense for NASA to distance themselves from such inevitable explosions, if only to avoid the public relations fallout that accompanied both space shuttle disasters. Controlling rocket engines is a bit like taming lions: as Sigfried and Roy could tell you, having all the experience in the world doesn't make it safe.

Spacewalkers Carry On Despite New Glitch

It's always something on space missions.

A spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday revealed that the orbiting platform's new starboard solar array has problems with the unit that it aligns it with the sun. Astronaut Daniel Tani, performing his first major task as a member of the new ISS crew, Expedition 16, found what appear to be metal particles in the well of a joint that controls the movement of the solar panels on the right side of the ISS. The starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, installed only four months ago, may be responsible for recent spikes in electricity from the starboard solar array. NASA engineers speculate that the metallic debris may be the result of a poor fit in the bearings or rings of the joint in the cold of space.

The astronauts of the docked Discovery have replacement parts onboard should the U.S. space agency decide to add another spacewalk to the already hectic schedule of the current mission, known as STS-120. In the meantime, the crew of the ISS has shut down the balky rotator joint to try to limit any further damage. While this is not a serious problem in the short run, as the station has plenty of power to maintain all its present systems, it does need to be addressed as soon as is practical, as future modules bound for the ISS, such as the European Columbus and the Japanese Kibo laboratories, will need full power to operate. Today, mission control administrators are mulling the option of extending the stay of Discovery for an extra day to perform the repair work.

Pushing on with their itinerary, nonetheless, the STS-120 crew today got down to some heavy lifting in zero gravity, using the station and shuttle robotic arms to move a portside truss segment to the end of a previously connected truss, both of which will house the giant solar array component on the left side of the ISS, according to NASA. Tomorrow, STS-120 Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock will step out into space to connect the two trusses. They will also conduct an inspection of the port rotator joint to compare its condition to the malfunctioning starboard one.

When your 200 miles above the surface of the earth, it's always the little things that manage to give you headaches.

The iPhoneâ¿¿illegal in California?

Phthalates, a group of chemicals mixed into plastics to increase flexibility, are regulated in California. They are hormone disrupters, a particularly nasty thing for children or women planning to have children. Products containing phthlates have to post this:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

And this month the California Governor signed a law that will completely ban phthalates from products intended for children. That law goes into effect in 2009. Such products are already illegal in San Francisco.

Enter the iPhone. Earlier this month Greenpeace published an analysis of the iPhoneâ''s internal and external components, and found all sorts of nasty things, including phthalates (check out this video).

Based on that report, the Center for Environmental Health gave Apple the required 60-day notice that it will be filing a lawsuit against the company; itâ''s hoping to pressure Apple into a negotiated settlement that will reduce the use of the chemicals. Apple hasnâ''t yet responded the Center, however, Apple reiterated its promise to clean up its products by the end of 2008 by removing brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, the plastic that contains the phthalates. (Nokia products are already PVC free, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have removed brominated flame retardants from their products.)

For now, donâ''t let your kids get their hands on an iPhone.

Maker Faire Highlights: Human Powered Vehicles

It's been a week since the Maker Faire in Austin, Texas, and I still have some great video from the event. Everywhere you looked, people were pedaling contraptions that made the average bicycle look boring. Best of all was the Big Wheel: imagine rolling around in a red, yellow, and blue, hand-made ferris wheel, and you're not too far off.

Each of the three riders has a pair of pedals connected to a naked chain (I had to roll up my jeans to avoid getting maimed). It was soon easy to see why I had to sign a waiver. As you pedal forward, the chain turns a gear, which (in theory) moves the huge wheel. All this is complicated the fact that the seats swing back and forth, making it hard to even keep you feet on the pedals. Check out the video-I was just glad to hang onto the camera.

Forward Bias

October 26, 2007

This week's theme: Matching-- in Space

Match the people to the space-related activities they undertook this week. Show all work.

1.Started negotiations with Lockheed to be first commercial spaceport.A.China
2.

Started a space-based matchmaking service.

B.Russia
3.Hosting the $2 million Wirefly X-Prize Cup.C.Nova Scotia
4.Launched three navigation satellites to rival GPSD.New Mexico
5.Shot the moon
..
E.Women

6.Ruled outer space

F.Space Angels
..

..

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