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Obama Should Take Systems Approach to Clean Energy

The Obama administration is developing a clean energy system as if it were a science project. The focus is on technology and ideas, not systems and strategic goals. The emphasis is on near term solutions with no effort made to envision what the whole system should look like 40 years from now. There are no phases, no disciplined reviews, no milestones. The hope seems to be that somebody will invent something great, solving all our problems in the blink of an eye.

An example of this science approach is a recent report entitled America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation (AEF), by the Committee on America's Energy Future, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council. This was a multi-year study that developed a baseline energy scenario based on “a projection of current economic, technology ... and policy parameters.”  

The AEF baseline scenario is an evolutionary one. That means it looks at what exists today and asks how today’s technologies be improved. Good things come from this approach, including energy efficiencies, the smart grid, and quick returns on investment. One down side, though, is that today’s reality of uncertain rules, regulation, policy, legacy system integration, and rapidly changing technologies are all mixed together. With such confusion, and no easy way to pick out the most important issues or solutions, it is no wonder that the AEF study concluded that there is no “silver bullet,” recommending a “balanced portfolio approach” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, "old school" systems engineering is driven by a purpose, a strategic goal. President Obama has provided an excellent strategic goal: to reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 2005 levels by 83 percent by 2050. This goal is certainly feasible. During the past 40 years France developed a nuclear electric power system that is 78 percent carbon free. There is no technical reason why the US cannot use nuclear to achieve 83 percent reduction in emissions over the next 40 years if the president, Congress, and the American people choose to do so. There is no development risk.

The main barrier to nuclear power, however, is the high cost of capital due to the risk of political obstructions. For this reason, the AEF evolutionary study viewed nuclear power as unattractive. But because disciplined development separates engineering from policy, a purely engineering-based approach such as the recent MIT study on the future of nuclear power comes up with different answers. The MIT study compared the direct cost of different technologies with the same cost of capital as: 6.6/6.2/6.5 ¢/kWh for nuclear, coal, and gas, respectively. Thus, after an objective assessment of the facts, the client—in this case the president, Congress, and the American people—could choose between the negatives of carbon dioxide emissions and the fear of using nuclear power, then create policy based on that balanced, informed choice.

Unlike evolutionary scenarios, strategic scenarios address the ability of a whole system to achieve a goal. For example, wind power looks attractive from an evolutionary point of view because we can certainly build systems that are 10-20 percent wind-powered. But a recent paper entitled Wind Energy Contribution to a Low Carbon Grid shows that wind cannot contribute much to a grid that is substantially carbon free because the wind subsystem is 80 percent dependent on fossil fuel generators for backup.

Both evolutionary and strategic scenarios are concerned with the uncertainty of changing technologies. But as with any long-term program, engineers incorporate risks and uncertainties into the engineering development plan. A clear purpose, the strategic goal, is what simplifies classic engineering development plans. Every approach is continuously tested against its ability to achieve the goal. Further, the suite of strategic scenarios is simplified by separating engineering from policy, ignoring legacy system constraints, and basing plans on technology as we know it today, rather than hoping for grand innovations.

It seems clear that the big challenge in clean energy development is not technology; it is the sheer number and diversity of stakeholders. Energy affects everyone, and everyone has an opinion. In my next post, I will show how disciplined engineering simplifies the politics and management of stakeholder interests.

Alex Pavlak is a PhD Professional Engineer with experience in systems architecture and the economics of wind power systems. He has had various management responsibilities in the development of large military systems. He has spent 15 years in alternate energy and holds several patents pending on wind turbines and static solar concentrators.

Cooling Off Chips With a Nice Warm Drink

It’s a hot summer day. You’ve been working hard and you’re burning up. You decide to take a break, so you wipe your brow and head inside to quench your thirst. What do you reach for? Whether your beverage of choice is lemonade or a, um, wheat-and-hop smoothie, you want it cold and you want it right now.

It’s that same thinking that has informed the way supercomputer makers have used water to keep the chips inside their number-crunching behemoths from succumbing to their own brand of heat stroke. Many liquid-cooled machines come equipped with electric chillers that keep the fluid that flows through them at a relatively brisk 15 degrees Celsius.

But a team of researchers at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, reported in the 16 April issue of Science their discovery that warm water is just as effective as cold water at ensuring that chips stay within their rated temperature range. They proved it with a supercomputer they built called Aquasar. The 10-teraflop machine has 60-degree water flowing through its network of copper pipes. The researchers say these viaducts draw away enough heat to keep the microprocessors’ temperature from exceeding 75 degrees Celsius—well below their rated limit of 85 degrees, where they begin to malfunction.

Though chilled chips run faster and have a longer lifespan, there is a good reason to let the warm water flow. The IBM team says that getting rid of the chillers lets Aquasar operate using half the energy that would be consumed by a similar model that is treated to a cold drink. IBM says it hopes to narrow the performance gap by making warm-water heat removal even more efficient. Within five years, the company says, the tubes that now carry the water around the chips will run right through them.

Hacking Ticketmaster

At 10 a.m. on December 15, 2007, Springsteen fans pounded anxiously at their computers.  The Boss had just announced three concerts at Giant Stadium in New Jersey, and they were desperately trying to score prime seats.

Good luck, right?  With more than 40% of concert tickets now being sold online, it seems impossible to get good seats at face value anymore.  The best ones go in seconds.  Fans are then left to go to ticket resellers like Stubhub to pay a premium for what used to be their basic right.  And sure enough, in a flash that December, the 12,000 front seats for the Springsteen tour were gone.   The fans complained – sparking a federal investigation.  Now we’ve learned where the tickets really went:   to the Wiseguys.

On March 1,  four guys behind a Nevada-based start-up, Wiseguy Tickets, were indicted in New Jersey on 43 counts for fraudulently buying and selling over 1.5 million tickets online - including concerts (AC/DC to Barbra Streisand), Broadway shows (Wicked, The Producers), and sports (Yankees, Rangers).  They made $25 million.  According to the feds, the Wiseguys became “the leading source of the best tickets for the most popular events.”  The Wiseguys' innovation:  “To achieve this goal, Wiseguys deployed a nationwide computer network that opened thousands of simultaneous Internet connections from across the United States; impersonated thousands of individual ticket buyers; and defeated online ticket vendors’ security mechanisms. When online ticket vendors tried to stop Wiseguys from engaging in this conduct, Wiseguys adapted its methods and continued."

This story exposes the underworld of ticket hackers, and the feeble battle the multibillion dollar industry is waging against them.  The battle is over bots. Hackers code and deploy automated programs to log on to online vendors and buy tickets as soon as they go on sale.  Ticket vendors try to prevent this by using programs such as CAPTCHA, which supposedly requires an actual human being to read and retype a distorted image of a word.  The Wiseguys found an ingenious way around this in an elaborate three year operation.  Among other things, they hired geeks in Bulgaria to engineer bots that beat the CAPTCHA filters.  They then made hundreds of bogus websites and emails where they had the tickets sent.

While the Wiseguys face 20 years in prison, the problem is far from over.  Companies are racing to keep bots off their sites, and fans are still getting stiffed.  But lawyers are arguing that no crimes have been broken.  According to the Star-Ledger, one defendant's lawyer "has compared Wiseguy’s business model to a large-scale modern-day version of paying someone to camp outside a box office to buy premium seats for a big show."

It's the sort of question that is playing in other bot battles - are online bots breaking the law?  In online poker, for example, some gamers deploy auto-playing bots.  It's a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, with the sites development countermeasures to sniff out the programs.  I can't imagine that this meta-game will ever end.  

How To Solve the World's Greatest Technology Problems

grand challenges engineering nae

Uh, sorry, I don't have the answer here. But I know who might.

Next week, some of the brightest tech thinkers will gather near Boston to brainstorm solutions to the world's toughest and most important problems in areas like energy, environment, health, security, and learning.

The summit, to take place on Wednesday, 21 April, at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass., is part of the Grand Challenges for Engineering, a program of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

A few years ago, NAE convened an international group of technologists -- including inventor Dean Kamen, Google's Larry Page, MIT's Robert Langer, and others -- to identify the world's most pressing engineering challenges. The result was a list of 14 formidable tech problems.

Now it's time to find the solutions.

NAE and other organizations, with input from the public and a host of experts, are organizing summits to discuss the challenges and ideas on how to tackle them.

Next week's event, organized by Babson College, Olin College of Engineering, and Wellesley College, is a regional event. You can see the whole program and lineup of speakers at

A national summit will take place in October at the University of Southern California.

Below is the list of 14 tech challenges. You can find accompanying explanations, essays, videos, and discussion forums at the Grand Challenges for Engineering web site.

tech challenges engineering nae

The challenges:

* Make solar energy economical
* Provide energy from fusion
* Develop carbon sequestration methods
* Manage the nitrogen cycle
* Provide access to clean water
* Restore and improve urban infrastructure
* Advance health informatics
* Engineer better medicines
* Reverse-engineer the brain
* Prevent nuclear terror
* Secure cyberspace
* Enhance virtual reality
* Advance personalized learning
* Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

Obama Finally Explains His Plan for Human Spaceflight

President Obama spoke yesterday at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Florida, to explain his vision for space and to defend his proposed FY 2011 budget. This breaks a long-held silence that has frustrated space enthusiasts and professionals alike since the budget was announced in February.

Addressing an audience at the Operations and Checkout Building at KSC, Obama called for finalizing plans for a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, which would then be built to ship astronauts beyond Earth orbit. He also called for landing humans on an asteroid as a step along the way to developing technologies to orbit and land on Mars. By the mid-2030s, he said, humans would orbit Mars and return safely to Earth.

Those words didn’t have quite the same ring as “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” by the end of this decade, but as the president pointed out, today’s challenges are different from those of the 1960s. Mars is harder than the moon. It will take more time. But when humans do land on the red planet, Obama said, “I expect to be around to see it.”

The president faces criticism for his proposed budget, which would increase NASA’s cash flow by about $6 billion but sets most of that amount aside for commercial space transportation projects, instead of building new space taxis in-house. Congress and NASA employees are also concerned that cutting the Constellation program, which was being designed to send humans back to the moon, will put thousands of people out of work, particularly in states like Texas and Florida.

But Obama countered by saying that his plan would add 2500 more jobs along the space coast than the Constellation program would have, and that it would generate over 10 000 jobs nationwide in the next few years. He also proposed a $40 million initiative for “regional growth and development” in the Florida area, to reach his desk by 15 August. The plan would help prepare a skilled work force for “new opportunities in the space industry and beyond.”

On an odder note, Obama said that the Orion capsule, which would have served as the lunar lander in the Constellation program, will remain on the table as the basis for a rescue capsule to be sent to the International Space Station (ISS), where it would be ready to carry astronauts back to Earth in case of an emergency. Of course, that will also keep Orion’s contractor Lockheed-Martin happy, and it will employ a few hundred more NASA people.

Some detractors of the Obama plan worry that relying on commercial companies to build space transportation vehicles after the space shuttle’s tour of duty ends this year would leave US astronauts at the mercy of Russia’s space agency, which operates the Soyuz space capsule, for an extended period of time.

However, in remarks after the president’s speech, Norman Augustine, who led the independent panel on human spaceflight that came up with many of the goals Obama’s plan endorses, nipped that worry in the bud: do we really have less faith in our commercial sector than in the Russians, he asked? Because it would have taken several more years for Constellation to get off the ground than it will for commercial transportation, he argued, the old plan would have left America dependent on Russia for even longer.

The president's proposed plan, Augustine said, if adequately funded and with timely decisions made, “does give us a way to have a human spaceflight program worthy of a great nation, and to transform us from transportation to exploration.”

Marty Hauser, a vice president of the Space Foundation, which this week hosted the 26th annual National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, says the remarks were mostly well received by space professionals in government and private industry, who watched the speech via live streaming at the conference and then discussed it in a panel afterwards. "The whole space community has been waiting to see what [the budget] will mean, beyond just canceling Constellation," Hauser says. "Now there's some flesh on the bones."

Hauser adds that the president’s speech gave attendees at the symposium the sense that "there is some thought going into planning” after all. "It's nice to have a better idea of where we're headed, and the rationale behind it," he says.

So now that Obama has put his mouth where his money is, the space industry—and the public—will be watching closely to see if his plan actually comes to fruition, paving the way for spaceflight's next small steps and giant leaps. I, for one, hope it does.

Photos courtesy of NASA.

Microsoft Engineer Shows Off His Automated Home

Ramaprasanna Chellamuthu, a Microsoft developer in Bangalore, lives alone at home but he never feels lonely. That's because, as he puts it in this entertaining video, "My home is my buddy." As a hobby, Chellamuthu set out to equip his house with a variety of robotics, augmented reality, and speech and image recognition devices. He called the project "buddyHome."

The house wakes him up in the morning and shows his calendar on a computer and projects a TV news show on the wall. An automated stirrer cooks his instant noodles on the stove. When he smiles while watching a cricket game on TV, the house offers to buy tickets, saying: "Can I have your credit card, please?" The house watches him even when he's eating: "You are eating a high fat diet!!" the house says when he's eating pizza. And when he can't get out of bed after the alarm clock goes off, a device holding a cup of water -- you knew this was coming -- pours it on his face.

If Bill Gates ever has problems with his smart home, he knows who to call.

Court Ruling Could Allow ISPs to Restrict Customers' Internet Usage

A new ruling by a federal appeals court on Tuesday may signal an end to ‘net neutrality’ as we know it, and open the door for ISPs to block or slow popular sites and services like YouTube, HULU and BitTorrent.

The court decision sided with Comcast, who argued that the FCC did not have the authority to insist all traffic across a broadband connection be treated equally. This means that legally your broadband ISP can monitor your Internet usage and block or slow any transactions that they want.

This regulation battle began when Comcast blocked BitTorrent access to some customers without warning in 2007. Comcast has since revised its rules and does not restrict BitTorrent, but can we trust them in the future?

Here’s a statement by Comcast from a New York Times article published 6 April 2010:

“Comcast remains committed to the F.C.C.’s existing open Internet principles, and we will continue to work constructively with this F.C.C. as it determines how best to increase broadband adoption and preserve an open and vibrant Internet.”

When I hear statements like this, I usually append ‘as long as it does not affect our bottom line or our ability to control as much of the market as possible’ to the end of them.

Before they were caught, Comcast was happy to restrict its customers’ Internet usage. Only after an embarrassing public shaming did the company adopt a commitment to “open Internet principles.”

The story of Robb Topolski, a software engineer and barbershop quartet enthusiast whose attempt to share recordings of civil war era songs eventually led to an investigation of Comcast by the FCC, is chronicled in a great Wired article.

At my current residence I have no choice as to which cable company supplies my broadband connection. If my broadband ISP decides that it is losing ad-revenues to HULU or NetFlix when I stream movies and TV shows, what is to stop them from setting my download limit to a level that makes streaming impossible or such low quality that I give up? There are no free market controls on this provider because have no option to switch to a competitor.

Can you imagine if you were blocked or charged an extra fee to make phone calls to certain businesses? What about members of certain political parties or religions? Would we stand for radio manufacturers that blocked stations that did not pay the licensing fees/technology usage fees/kickbacks that the manufacturers demanded? Of course not.

As it turns out, the FCC may have made some decisions that limit their power to regulate broadband, but the agency was created to protect the public. Just because we communicate over a new medium does not mean that the FCC should be scrapped. We need regulations to keep the Internet “open and vibrant.”

Comcast has already tried to restrict Internet usage once. I’ll be interested to see if they stick with their commitment to “open Internet principles” without a law that forces them to do so.

Photo Credit: FCC

What's an iPad? It depends.

When you buy an iPod, you’re most likely going to listen to music on it. When you buy the iphone, you’ll make calls, text, do a little web browsing—sure, you’ll have your favorite apps, but the basic things you do on it won’t be much different from what I’ll be doing.

But when you buy an iPad, all bets are off. Because, it seems, the iPad is a different device to every user.

At least, that’s what I discovered talking to the people lined up at the Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif., on iPad opening day (see video). For some, it’s a game player. For others, it’s a Netflix viewer, or an ebook reader. For others, it’s a travel accessory. And for a few, it’s, finally, an iTouch big enough for the vision impaired. And, of course, this spring, it’s the current geek status symbol. 

Showing Off DIY Arduino Art

This past Saturday, I went to NYC Resistor's "Art, Design, and the Arduino Microcontoller: a lineage" gallery party. Curated by Alicia Gibb, the show was a loving tribute to the device. The show had everything from early Arduino prototypes to modern projects made with the microcontroller.  Highlights included toy cars hacked to paint like Jackson Pollock, a coffee table that cleans itself, and LED jackets that lit up as you moved.  Check out the video highlights below.

PS3 vs. Linux

Today, Sony is releasing a new firmware update for the Playstation 3 videogame console.  Among other things, according to a post on the official Sony blog, "it will disable the 'Install Other OS' feature that was available on the PS3 systems prior to the current slimmer models, launched in September 2009.  No, it's not an April Fool's day joke - geeks won't be able to run Linux on their PS3s anymore.  Infoweek compares this to the move by "Tivo, which uses Linux in its digital video recorder, has rigged its devices to block installation of source code that's been modified by the end user. Critics of the move, including free software advocate Richard Stallman, now refer to any attempts by Linux-based hardware manufacturers to limit the use of modified Linux on their products as 'Tivoization.'"

Stallman is one of the original online freedom fighters.  It's sort of ironic because he doesn't own a cell phone.  He doesn't surf the web.  And he's sick of people who spend their lives so plugged in.  "It's almost as if they worship technology," he has said, "and they don't care about the social consequences of using it."  So how did this guy who sounds Amish and looks like Rick Rubin become the most dangerous man online?   Stallman is the founder and high-priest of the Free Software Foundation, a posse of hackers, scientists, and economists who share a renegade mission:   to empower the people by unshackling the restrictions of computer technology and freely distributing software across the Web.  His enemies are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and every other leader of what he calls the "unjust Internet regime. "

Stallman launched the free software movement in 1985 after graduating Harvard magna um laude in physics and becoming the most notorious hacker at MIT (where he became famous for leading a mutiny against the school's computer password system, and cracked the code open for his classmates).   He created GNU, the first operating system made completely of free software.  Linux, Gnutella, open-source software, piracy, and the breakdown of the proprietary technology system as we know it followed in his wake.  He's the greatest hero of what he calls the "copyleft" and, as one detractor put it, "the most hated man in cyberspace."

But after two decades as the icon of the digital underground, Stallman's time is now.  In the fallout of the recession, the Napster generation who grew up in the free age online is heeding his gospel.  A while back, his followers launched a high-profile fight by suing Cisco for restricting access to software that is licensed by the Stallman's group to be free.  He's also expanding his fight to address other issues such as climate change, radio-frequency identification, and Darfur.  He lectures barefoot, lotus-style, and goes by the hacker nickname RMS. He's also a diehard backcountry explorer, from Cambodia to Peru, and performs hacker folk songs during his trips:  "Join us now and share the software," goes one of his tunes, "You'll be free, hackers, you'll be free."  Except on the PS3.


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