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Maker Faire Day -1: The Madness Begins

Make Magazine's first Maker Faire in Austin, Texas got under way in earnest last night as hundreds of do-it-yourselfers, crafters, and artists descended on the 228-acre Travis County Fairgrounds to prepare for today's event. Fueled by free beer and tacos, the Makers made merry, blasting flames 200 feet in the air, speeding around on adult-sized Big Wheels, carousing in an impromptu traveling minstrel show and...oh yeah...setting up their displays. IEEE Spectrum is located right near the main stage at this event and our Make/Spectrum DIY contest winner, Don Kirk from Indianapolis, Indiana, set up his $20 trail camera cheek-by-jowl with a DIY keg-o-later sponsored by Popular Science. Google is also here with a huge tent and then there are hundreds more Makers scattered over this vast expanse. They don't do small in Texas. We'll be blogging all day today and tomorrow, posting pictures and video as the show unfolds. Stay tuned....

A Day at the (Solar) Races

There are only 18 hours left before the World Solar Challenge begins in Darwin, Australia. The teams participating in this epic engineering competition will set out at 8 a.m. tomorrow for the city of Adelaide 3000 kilometers away, and the drivers are about to be subjected to some brutal heat inside their solar cars.

It can get as hot as 40 degrees Celsius inside the cars, so the drivers will face a formidable challenge just staying hydrated and comfortable. To deal with the centimeters of accumulated sweat contributed by its drivers, for example, Nunaâ''s designers (from the University of Delft, in The Netherlands) added a special sweat channel to drain out as it accumulates. A thoughtful touch, indeed, but perhaps a sign that these vehicles arenâ''t ready for mass production.

As this correspondent left the race track this morning, it appeared likely that the Aurora Vehicle Association, from Melbourne, had snagged pole position, with a qualifying lap time one second faster than Nunaâ''s. The University of Michigan team came in twenty seconds behind the two, but thereâ''s a consensus that the Midwesterners are the ones to watch this year. Check out the nifty concentrator system embedded in the lid of their car. This might be the first time that a mirror concentrator design has been built into a solar car, and weâ''re excited to see how it fares.

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Auroraâ''s team leaders donâ''t expect theyâ''ll winâ''theyâ''ve had a singularly rough yearâ''but chances are good that theyâ''ll finish in the top 10. This storied team has been participating in the race since the very beginning. They last won the competition in 1999 and came in second two years ago, the last time the race was held. But some 15 months ago the solar car went up in flames while it was on tour in Spain, and it was so completely demolished that the team never determined the cause of the fire.

Thatâ''s quite a blow for any team, and Aurora hasnâ''t been blessed with as much sponsorship as some other teams have. So with the loss of the car, the engineers had no components they could recycle in a new entry. Despite cutting a few corners to build a cheaper carâ''such as choosing silicon solar cells, rather than top-of-the-line gallium arsenide onesâ''theyâ''ve put together whatâ''s turned out to be a pretty sharp vehicle.

Here are some more photos from the track, which sort of resembled a UFO convention. It's been an exhausting journey for everyone here.

asleep_amid_cars.JPG

This is the German vehicle--a unique form that the designers expect to be extremely aerodynamic. Instead of a lid that fully detaches, as most cars here have, this one opens and closes on hinges. Here it is with the lid closed, looking rather fish-like.

german_closed.JPG

And some more cars...

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The next reports will all come from straight from the Australian outback!

Nerves Run High at Australian Solar Race

It's been an extremely draining week for the legions of engineers that have gathered in Darwin, in northern Australia, for the biennial World Solar Challenge, in which solar cars race across the desert for five days. The race to Adelaide, on the southern coast, starts Sunday morning, and every minute so far has been used to diagnose problems both large and small. Virtually every team has had to contend with minor last-minute disasters: The University of Calgary's car got in an accident and damaged one side, Stanford's car had a circuit board catch on fire, and the Venezuelan team was frantically searching for a new battery pack. Others were checking and rechecking things, and the solar-paneled tops to the cars were lying on their sides in the workspaces along Hidden Valley race track like a series of giant, upturned scarabs.

Nuon's team members, the reigning champs from Holland, were up until 3:30 a.m. Thursday night diagnosing unexpected problems, but they were out the door again 6 hours later, ready to keep working. "You just can't sleep knowing something's not working," says Rabih Alzaher, one of the car's three appointed drivers.

The team spent Friday retouching its solar panels. They had noticed different voltages building up between some of the cells, and it turned out that the arrays at the back of the car were coming in contact with the car body and conducting electricity into the car interior. So the University of Delft engineers spent several hours painstakingly peeling off a few of the paper-thin arrays and adding insulation.

The other teams had also, for the most part, overcome their mishaps and were putting the finishing touches on their vehicles at the track, in the outskirts of Darwin. They ran test laps as the sun was setting, crossing their fingers that nothing new would emerge as the hours wind down to Saturday morning--when they have to pass the final qualifying tests from the World Solar Challenge officials.

If their cars aren't running properly in these next crucial hours, then it will be over, and the long trek to Australia will end here in Darwin. In spite of all their preparations, it comes down to these next few hours to determine which cars will meet on the starting line tomorrow.

The Return to Cool of the Pocket Protector

In its day, nothing signified the appearance of an engineer as much as a pocket protector. These little plastic sleeves adorned the shirt pockets of tech workers everywhere in America.

Stuffed with pens and pencils, the pocket protector was once worn as a sort of badge signifying that the wearer was a member in good standing of a cross-disciplinary group that took serious thinking seriously. Times changed, though, and the image of a researcher or designer or an inventor was challenged to fit in with the cool crowd -- that is, those who took serious thinking monetarily. The stereotype of an engineer as a nerd could not survive the onslaught of snickering from those who wouldn't understand a quadratic equation if their lives depended on it but who understood that dressing for success was all that mattered anymore. It was too much for the humble pocket protector, so out they went by the millions.

A funny thing happened, though. The so-called nerds kept right on inventing: computers, software, consumer electronics, an on and on. They became wealthy beyond anyone's imagination. They became a new elite. They earned the respect of others by outdoing them at their own game, making money from thinking seriously.

As with any other accessory in the history of fashion, the pocket protector has been biding its time waiting for a comeback, aided only by the handful of faithful who have all along remembered it with reverence as a symbol of what once was. One of these adherents is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Missippi (USM), John A. Pojman.

Pojman operates a Web museum (or "webseum") dedicated to the deprecated penholder, going by the name Pocket Protectors: The Fashion Accessory for the New Millennium. His personal collection of the items may be the largest anywhere (over 500 and growing). His pocket protector site features photos of fellow enthusiasts and a helpful history of the handy implement (which links, interestingly enough, to a nice little piece online at the IEEE History Center).

Pojman is one of those who believe that the pocket protector is about to stage a fashion comeback. He may be on to something. Maybe it's time to give the little accessory another look to see what it states about the wearer. So we contacted him to hear what got him interested in the pocket protector as a passion. Here's what he had to say.

"I bought my first pocket protector in 2001 from the American Chemical Society. I greatly admired it and found a company, berda.com, that prepares custom pocket protectors. I designed and ordered 1000 for our chemistry/biochemistry department at USM. I then designed and ordered 100 for the Pojman Research Group, bearing the motto Ad Maiorem Poimanorum Gloriam, which translates 'For the Greater Glory of the Pojmans'. I started collecting seriously in 2004, purchasing pocket protectors from eBay. My collection survived Hurricane Katrina. Although our house in New Orleans had 7 feet of water, the collection was on an upper floor. During our exile in Baton Rouge, I spent part of every day searching for pocket protectors. Last year I created the webseum, scanning the entire collection, which numbers 535.

"My favorite pocket protector is one made from alligator skin that I had custom made. Other favorites are NASA ones and a Little Debbie one. What is most interesting is that pocket protectors appear to be a uniquely American contribution to fashion. I have yet to meet anyone outside the U.S. who has heard of them, let alone seen one.

"People characterize smart people as nerds because they feel insecure about their own ignorance of technology and science. I have always loved science and am proud to be a scientist. Using a pocket protector let's people know that I am a nerd and proud of it."

With that type of proud defiance of convention, Pojman is sure to attract more followers to his cause. He may bring the much maligned techie accessory back into the mainstream of dress appearance again. If he and others succeed, commentators will observe, as they always do, "What was once old is new again."

Forward Bias

October 19, 2007

This week's theme: Go Fast

1. 4,498 kilometers: The distance Alex Roy traveled from New York to California in 31 hours and 4 minutes to beat the transcontinental driving records set in 1979, 1983 and 2006. Such an ambitious plan required a lot of technology--not all of it 100% legal-- from redundant GPS units to thermal cameras. Now that the statutes of limitation are up on all the laws the man broke to break the record, you can read all about it.

2. 3000 kilometers: The distance between Darwin and Adelaide, representing the far northern coast of Australia and the far southern. The World Solar Challenge is a biennial solar car race that features some of the best automotive engineering in the world. Watch for live reports from Spectrum's Sandra Upson.

3. 0.03 km: The distance between goals on an ice rink. This week, some NHL players got skates outfitted with battery-powered heated blades to make them go faster. I predict fun, games, eye loss.

4. 0.01 kilometers: The distance from one end of the office to the other, which you can now cross on a tricycle, without having to either get up or stop tapping at your keyboard. Ladies and gentlemen, the Scooterdesk.

5. 0.0006096 kilometers: The distance between your keyboard and your chair. Replace your chair with the handy Steelcase Walkstation to travel all day without moving.

DRM vs The Analog Hole

I remember attending a conference on digital rights management, some years ago. DRM schemes, such as the copy restrictions on DVDs that limit viewing to one region of the world, or those in iTunes that restrict the number of devices a song can be played on, were still a new thing.

At the conference, one of the speakers argued in favor of very strong DRM. When asked how, say, a scholar could â''quoteâ'' a multimedia work, the speaker said that a video, for example, could be played on a TV, with a videocamera aimed at the screen to re-record what appears there. Audio and video could always be recaptured through this â''analog hole,â'' the speaker noted.

Analog copies are inferior to digital ones, however, so at the time, the audience has little use for this idea. Analog copies degrade with each iteration, like the faded urban legends and ethnic jokes that travel by fax machine down the decades.

I hadnâ''t thought of this in years, but last night, after installing something called the HD Stick, from Pinnacle Systems, I realized that I now had not one, but two perfect tools on my computer for grabbing stuff through the analog hole, with hardly any of the degradation problems. The other tool, which I installed a few months back, is WireTap Studio.

WireTap Studio does one thing, and it does it very well. It captures any audio coming into, or out of, the computer, and it does it at the sourceâ''the digital bits, as they enter or exit. Thus, you can start playing a song in iTunes, for example, and a split second later start recording it. The result is an MP3 file that can be played on any device and is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from the DRMâ''d one. You can also set a timer to capture a webcast of a radio program.

Pinnacleâ''s HD Stick does much the same thing for television. I used the TV for Mac product; of course thereâ''s one for Windows as well. The heart of it is a software program and a USB stick, larger than a flash drive, to which you can attach either a supplied antenna, to capture over-the-air broadcast television programming, or a cable that can in turn be connected to a cable-television-service set-top box. The software not only lets you switch channels but record. The results, again, are DRM-free digital versions of your favorite shows. Essentially, any old computer can become a digital video recorder, but with one wonderful twistâ''the resulting shows can be copied to another computer.

Thereâ''s nothing new about these capabilities, and people have been using something like the HD Stick to create the snippets of current shows that are routinely posted to YouTube. (Pinnacleâ''s ability to capture over-the-air signals, especially high-definition ones, however, may be unique.) What is remarkable, though, is how easily and routinely content is now flowing through the analog hole. It makes you wonder if thereâ''s any point left to digital rights management schemes.

Fabless Sony?

EETimes reports that Sony has taken a major step away from making its own chips. The company cut a deal that transfers its advanced fabrication lines to Toshiba; the ones where Sony makes the Cell microprocessors for the PlayStation 3.

The deal had been rumored for weeks. Sony and Toshiba said that they have formed two fab ventures. But in reality, Sony is transferring the plants to Toshiba, marking Sony's shift towards a fab-lite -- or perhaps a fabless -- strategy.

After the transfer takes place in March 2008, production on the line will be operated by the "joint venture." But that just means Toshiba will eat all the fab-related costs. Gizmodo speculated last month that PS3's lackluster sales were driving Sony to look for a way to free up money to spend on other, less dour areas of the business.

Happy Birthday to the Transistor Radio

Today is the anniversary of one of the most iconic gadgets of the 20th Century, the transistor radio. On this date in 1954, Industrial Development Engineering Assoc. released the first commercial version of a device, the Regency TR-1, based on a design by Texas Instruments. Forget about the popularity today of music players such as the iPod, when the transistor radio hit the market in the U.S. in the Fifties, it took off like wildfire, sparking a boom in popular music that revolutionized the world. The relationship between music and the consumer has never been the same since.

Prior to the transistor radio, there had been many advances in making radios portable. The first commercial radios from the Twenties were all powered by batteries but were bulky machines. By the Thirties, commercial radios were small enough to fit into automobiles. With further refinement, these vacuum-tube receivers stepped outdoors by the Forties. It was the introduction of transistor technology into handheld units in the Fifties, though, that set off a cultural phenomenon.

The music of the day, especially the new sound called Rock 'n' Roll, gained much of its enormous surge in popularity with the explosive rise in use of the transistor radio. The concept of being able to carry a small device anywhere you wanted and listen to your favorite songs was a revolution in the way people, particularly young people, thought about the world around them. It created a new generation that was "on the go." In fact, from the surfing scene to the space program, America's favorite word soon became "go" -- from "all systems go" to "going to a go-go."

And it all started with the little Regency TR-1. So happy birthday, transistor radio. Your legacy is still going strong.

Plastic X-Plane

Back in 2006, Spectrum predicted a win for the advanced carbon composite wing on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Lockheed Martin is going further: A program at Lockheedâ''s Skunk Works aims to replace the mid/aft fuselage and tail assembly of a Dornier 328J aircraft with advanced composites.

ACCAFD_Dornier_Flight_C.jpg

Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs

The Lockheed team at Palmdale, CA, were given the green light yesterday by the Air Force Research Laboratory to start putting together the new X-Plane, called the Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) Flight Demonstration.

Advanced composites are plastic-like materials that usually mix resins with high-strength fibers of carbon, boron, graphite, or glass. They tend to be stronger, lighter, and more resistant to fatigue and corrosion than the aluminum alloys widely used in planes today.

According to the Lockheed press release, the plastic X-Planeâ''s advanced composites â''will enable a reduction of 80-90 percent in parts count and a dramatic reduction in corrosion and fatigue issues compared to conventional aircraft manufacturing approaches.â''

The press release also mentions applications for long range strike, unmanned systems and future air mobility transports.

And in fact, Danger Room reports that the Air Force is hoping to use the research to build â''a new class of short-takeoff-and-landing transports circa 2020 that is significantly lighter and costs much less to produce than current air mobility platforms of the same size.â''

Solar Car Race Gets In Gear

Greetings from Darwin, Australia! Weâ''ll be providing ongoing coverage of the World Solar Challenge, a biennial solar car race that showcases some of the best automotive engineering from universities around the world, using truly top-notch components and design. The race begins on the northern coast of Australia and ends 3000 kilometers away in Adelaide, on the southern coast.

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A mere two days of last-minute tinkering remain before the race begins on Oct. 21. Thereâ''s a great deal of strategy involved in every aspect of preparation, from initially crafting the vehicleâ''s design to calculating the carâ''s optimal speed on a second-by-second basis during the race. The teams that have now congregated in Darwin are not guaranteed a spot in the race: first they must pass a qualifying test on Saturday morning. So the decisions they make in these last few moments are crucial.

In 2005, Nuon, a Dutch team from the University of Delft, won the race while averaging a speed just a hair away from the legal limit. During that same race, MITâ''s solar vehicle flipped over, causing a great deal of damage to the panels on its top. To bring down the speeds of the vehicles for safety reasons as well as to add a new engineering challenge, the raceâ''s organizers changed a few key requirements this year: instead of the previous 8 square meters allowed for solar panels on the car, now the teams can use only 6 square meters. The cars must now use steering wheels (Nuonâ''s car, Nuna, used joysticks last time) and have upright seats, which makes the car less aerodynamic than previous models.

Hereâ''s a glimpse of Nuna 4, getting worked on at a gas station in the sleepy town of Humpty Doo, outside Darwin:

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The rivalry is heating up between Nuon and another top team, Continuum, from the University of Michigan. The Michigan team purportedly has some fancy new electronics under the lid, as well as a more intricately crafted solar-panel layout. But during the â''scrutineeringâ'' sessions on Thursday, where the cars and their drivers are thoroughly examined and measured, inspectors called into question the arrangement of Michiganâ''s shingled cells, which overlap just slightly, allowing more cells to be crammed into those critical 6 square meters. Does each inch of cell count, as the inspectors contend, or only the exposed portions, as the team argues? If each cell counts, then the team is well over the 6-square-meter limit. And then thereâ''s the solar concentrator system: a set of curved mirrors that rest on top of a part of the roof and collect sun to be absorbed by a set of panels held just above the mirrors. Perhaps the mirrors also ought to be included in that measurement. If it turns out Continuum is entirely in the clear, the Michigan team will have an enormous advantage in the amount of energy it can soak up from the sun. The other teams, Nuon in particular, are anxiously awaiting the outcome.

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