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At the Mobile World Congress that took place from 15–18 February in Barcelona, Texas Instruments announced the commercial launch of a chip that will allow even the thinnest flip-style cellular handsets to feature miniature projectors. These so-called pico projectors can create 640-by-360-pixel images as big as 50 inches diagonal. TI's latest digital light processor, or DLP, chip exploits the company's MEMS technology, whereby millions of tiny moveable mirrors reflect red, green, and blue light from LEDs onto a wall or curtain.

The chips will also start appearing in digital cameras this year, which means no more crowding around someone's SLR to see the shots he or she just took.

Earlier-generation chips using TI’s digital light-processor technology are already making their way into larger handsets and freestanding projectors. The freestanding units, which are the size of a deck of playing cards, let people travel with all they need for business presentations or can be used as add-ons to media players, gaming consoles, and laptop computers.

For more on what's out there and what's to come, take a look at an IEEE Spectrum video podcast featuring palm-size projectors put through their paces.



A Three Axis Gyroscope with Just One Sensor

Smart phones that don’t know where they are or where they’re going are seeming less smart by the minute. [That point is made in the February IEEE Spectrum news article, “A Compass in Every Smart Phone.”] Besides GPS, phones phones with electronic compass functions need accelerometers and, increasingly, digital gyroscopes.

 “Cellphone companies continually demand smaller size, less power, and lower cost,” says Jay Esfandyari, MEMS product marketing manager at STMicroelectronics. But there have been some important limits.

Heretofore in gyroscopes, movement about the three axes was measured by three separate sensing structures—one for pitch, one for yaw, and another for roll.  At most, two would be combined on a single die. The best you could do was, say, a 3-by-5-by-1-mm yaw sensor matched up with a 4-by-5-by-1-mm sensor that would detect pitch and roll. But now ST has managed to make a 4-by-4-by-1-millimeter MEMS gyroscope whose single sensing structure tracks all three angular motions. “The aim now,” says Esfandyari, “is to eventually shrink them down to 3 mm square, which is the average footprint of accelerometers inside smart phones.

The gyroscope comes preset with one of three sensitivity levels, which allow the device to trade speed for resolution. For gaming, it can capture movement as quick as 2000 degrees per second, but can only distinguish movements larger than 70 mllidegrees. The version for user interfaces—say a wand or a wearable mouse, which track smaller, more controlled shifts such as pointing and clicking on a computer screen—can pick up movements as fast as 500 degrees per second. It can distinguish movements of 18 millidegrees or more. The most sensitive version, which only picks up 250 degrees per second can sense the slightest movements, anything greater than 9 millidegrees.

The gyroscope also represents a high water mark in terms of energy consumption, according to ST. The new 3-axis device draws 6 milliamps; two years ago, ST’s single-axis gyroscopes drew 9 mA. The device gets more done with less energy because it operates in what’s called flip mode. The mechanical structure of the device is always on, but the sensing structure is off when a gadget’s direction-finding function is not in use. When the gyroscope is needed, the sensing structure can be flipped on and made ready to record movement readings in less than 40 milliseconds. ST aims to reduce the lag to roughly 15 ms within the next year or so. Esfandyari says this haste in turning the sensing structure on and off is critical because in applications such as dead reckoning, missing the initial movements will make it almost certain that every subsequent reading will be in error. 


The Social Panopticon And You

Over the past couple of weeks, Google has gotten repeated bloody noses from tech journalists over the Buzz debacle. Before Buzz, Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy was backed up by a lot of carefully thought-out and well-executed applications. By comparison, Buzz was so uncharacteristically tone-deaf that people went from 0 to "conspiracy theory" in 60 seconds. Personally, I think Buzz was an honest mistake from a company that skews young, and young people are notorious for being laissez faire about privacy concerns.

Buzz is a symptom. The disease is the social media panopticon. Since Jeremy Bentham posited it as the ideal architecture for guarding inmates, the panopticon has been a popular stand-in for the all-seeing eye of the state (just Google “UK and panopticon” to see this dead horse beaten into fine dust). But the rolling media freakouts about Facebook picture tagging have illustrated that the bogeyman isn’t the government. It’s us watching us. We are the panopticon, man! Soylent green is people!

I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, friends would try to spook me with tales of Carnivore or Total Information Awareness, and my response was essentially, “make my day, punks!” Visions of airless basements filled my head, hapless poindexters drowning under unceasing floods of information overload.

I am dismayed to say, however, that the confluence of three developments has changed my mind completely.

1. Every single person on this earth has a camera phone and a blog
2. Facial recognition software and real time search are very close to eliminating the anonymizing effect of the data glut
3. Your employer is starting to wonder what you do when you’re not at work

I am now looking for a milliner who specializes in aluminum.

1. If you see something, say something

Back in January, some callow jerk started posting uncharitable photos of N-train commuters and their various offenses. Truly, it was little more than a tedious compendium of uninteresting irregularities: looking through a large purse while wearing a colorful scarf; putting on makeup; being overweight; being homeless. This was a mediocre data point in an exploding trend of cell phone camera auteurs posting their sartorial observations on their various blogs.

What made this story unique was that the N Train bit back: various Gothamist commenters, outraged by the attack on their privacy, did some basic detective work to broadcast his real name and likeness. There’s now even a special Twitter feed (Revenge of the N Train) whose goal is to catalog sightings of the guy.

It was all made possible by Google’s caching feature. When the Gothamist crowd started to hone in on his true identity, the N Train chronicler immediately jacked up all his Facebook privacy settings. Then he quickly erased some incriminating personal Tweets. No dice, buddy: the Gothamists posted an impressive array of screenshots of his cached personal Facebook page alongside older, pre-edited versions of his personal Twitter feed. “Now, if a potential employer Googles Pete Malachowsky, they'll find a Gothamist article talking about how creepy he is,” wrote commenter Hotcup gleefully in the article’s epilogue. “Serves his creepo a** right.”

On its own, this is a heartwarming tale of a city banding together and giving someone a taste of his own medicine. But now consider how difficult it will be for Malachowsky to clear his record. This excellent report from Cornell Information Technologies lays out the steps he would need to take to get the information removed from Google.

You must go through their policy process for removing information from their caching technology. Not only is that a lot of bureaucracy, but also you should know that while Google is the dominant search engine on the Internet today, it might not be tomorrow. Moreover, other search engines operate currently on the Internet and so it is not just Google whom you might have to contact in order to remove a page.

Now just imagine having to go through this if you haven't done anything to deserve it.

2. Can You See Me Now?

Consider also the development of video and image recognition software. Right now, governments and corporations are heavily funding face recognition software, governments for purposes of defeating terrorism, corporations for purposes of making awesome augmented reality apps. As with every technology ever, any great military capability will trickle down to the average person with a blog. Real-time search will pre-sort and catalog every single bit of piffle that hits the Internet--including that picture of you picking your nose on the N train.¿

A year ago, the launch of MOBVIS building image-recognition software proved that computers can now autonomously identify individual buildings. The sure-to-be-upcoming Google Face app will have your image sorted and catalogued the second it is created. So imagine you’ve had your picture snapped by five different people today, all populating their mediocre fame-whore blogs. The new generation of information aggregators will suck up those pictures, pre-sort them and slap your name before you can say “tinfoil hat.”

3.  "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion"

Recently, NPR sent out a missive to its journalists. The jist of it was this: Don't do anything off work hours that you wouldn't intentionally do to represent the company.

Your Facebook page, your blog entries and your tweets – even if you intend them to be personal messages to your friends or family – can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. This content, therefore, represents you and NPR to the outside world as much as a radio story or story for does.

I'm not singling out NPR. Universities have instituted policies that spell out that certain activities, done off the premises and ostensibly outside the penumbra of the University’s authority, will get your butt kicked out of school. At the University of Arkansas, for example, athletes and Greek Life members must have their facebook profiles open to screening at all times. These preventive policies were put in place to allow organizations to police online activities much the way they police other behaviors (political protesting, sexual relationships, alcohol consumption, etc).

I’m not saying NPR shouldn’t try to inoculate itself against some of the truly bad PR that can result from employees gone wild. The law firm Norton Rose is probably still putting raw steak on the black eye it received from the Claire Swire incident almost a decade ago. The Carlyle Group was poorly represented by the young Lothario whom it relocated to S. Korea, and then promptly re-relocated to the unemployment line after his conquest-bragging emails reached top brass.

Beyond policing existing employees, it’s been much reported that companies are using social networking sites to vet their potential hires (prompting a phenomenally popular New York Times Facebook privacy how-to by Sarah Peretz). The Peretz article puts the number of companies using Facebook in particular at 30 percent. “In today's tough economy,” Peretz goes on to say, “the question of whether to post those embarrassing party pics could now cost you a paycheck in addition to a reputation. (Keep that in mind when tagging your friends' photos, too, won't you?)" Sure, but what happens when I can tag people who are not my friends and I don’t care about the consequences to their lives?

In conclusion, here's my nightmare scenario: After an especially rough day at Sparkle Motion Corp., I get on the N Train cradling a big bottle of Jim Beam. An officer of the law takes me downtown for public inebriation, and my perp walk is captured for posterity by a jerk with a camera phone and a blog. Even though his dumb blog has only three readers, Google Face identifies my sodden visage by name, and puts those pictures into the eternal damnation of Google Image search results. My employer, seized with a sudden itch to make sure its employees are representing Sparkle Motion as well as they possibly could be, finds the evidence of my malingering ways, and I get fired. In a terrible economy, my next job application is derailed by a simple Google Search.

Am I overreacting? Can someone please give me The Talk I used to give my paranoid friends?


A Canticle For DARPATech

I’ll never eat Pentagon m&ms again. A DARPA spokesperson has confirmed that there will be no more DARPATech, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s bi-annual (but occasionally annual, and at other times occurring only every three years) conference, at which the latest and greatest “mad science” technologies go prime time. A quick eulogy is in order.

DARPATech 2007 featured a particular bumper crop: Robot arms, unmanned autonomous robot Humvees, all-seeing blimps, an autonomous insect-like robot called "Little Dog," a robo-beast of burden called Big Dog, and a deputy director’s bikini-clad demonstration of a core-temperature regulating glove. There was even a bracing dose of reality.

Yes, DARPATech was probably a PR boondoggle meant to remind news outfits that the Defense Department isn’t just about killing people. But is that so wrong? Of all the Defense agencies, DARPA is probably the best-run. DARPA program managers have four-year contracts, and they never get the chance to become career bureaucrats. After their term is up, they are told to skedaddle no matter the status of their project. The agency is low on bureaucracy and high on ideas. And the ideas are life-changing.

However, the Obama administration is likely avoiding highly visible celebrations of war. That might be an unfair description of DARPATech, but how else would you characterize 3,000 defense contractors hanging out at a convention so elaborate and shiny that it makes a trip across the street to Disneyland (literally) seem boring?

Most likely, the biggest reason is money. When Danger Room blogged the 2007 convention, reporter Sharon Weinberger observed that the best kept secret at DARPAtech was "how much it costs."

According to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee at ScienceInsider, the FY2011 budget for DARPA is $2.9 billion. Though the agency lost $100 million from 2010, they shifted $200 million to basic research (bringing that amount to $2 billion). To get to that number, DARPA said that it had to chop some "low priority weapons development programs." Also: shiny conventions across the street from Disneyland.

The DARPA spokesperson told me that the agency has been pursuing “different arrangements.” In January, for example, they hosted the DARPA Industry Summit in Washington, DC “to discuss key globalization issues,” and he says that DARPA expects to hold similar meetings in the future.

Full disclosure: I am an unabashed DARPA fangirl. For me, this is very sad news indeed.

(Blue) Brain and Beauty

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to see the new Rolex Learning Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.  Architecture critics are fawning over the $65 million building.  A writer in the Guardian yesterday compared it to "some filmic version of the afterlife."  But to me what's even more remarkable is what's going on nearby at the school:   they're building a brain.

The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne is a grim campus of sparsely-windowed gray buildings thirty minutes north of Geneva, Switzerland.  When I was last there a couple years ago, I met Marcus Bartschi, a wry, 43-year-old computer engineer, who sat at a desk in a dim office with a rusty saw hanging inexplicably on a bare concrete wall.  He had a scruffy black beard and dark circles under his eyes, brought on by his two-week-old son.  “My boy has only physical needs now,” Bartschi told me, resignedly, “there’s not much for me to do.”   So he tended to his other baby:  a four ton supercomputer named Blue Gene.  Developed by IBM, Blue Gene is one of the world’s most powerful high-performance machines, and it was being used here for a suitably super, some say impossible, mission:    to simulate a brain.    Bartschi had the vulnerably human task of keeping it alive.   “Hellooooo,” he cooed, as the laptop monitoring Blue Gene fires up.   

The project, dubbed Blue Brain, is the dream of Dr. Henry Markram, the neuroscientist in charge of the EPFL’s Brain and Mind Institute.  Several years ago, Markram approached IBM with an ambitious plan:  to accelerate the normal path of research by building a three-dimensional model of a mammalian brain, as he said, “in silico.”   Skeptics such as MIT’s Marvin Minsky are already questioning what they call won’t rule it out completely.  “We do not yet know if consciousness will emerge in these artificial brains,” he has said, “and we will consider the ethics of this if this happens.”  

Bartschi, a diehard Hitchhiker’s Guide fan, was more skeptical about his Blue Gene baby, “this is no HAL,’ he said   Blue Gene, however, was robust (with a processing speed of 22.8 tera-flops per second, the eight fastest supercomputer in the world) and affordable ($2 million per rack) enough to give Markram his crack.  The goal was to first simulate a single neocortical column, then take another ten or so to replicate an entire brain.  While Markram’s team tends to the data-crunching software, Bartschi had the less glamorous job of caring for Blue Brain’s pillar:  Blue Gene.  “It’s a lot of pressure,” he said, with a sigh, “I want it to work 100% of the time.” 

After the fanfare of the announcement, Bartschi oversaw the installation of the four refrigerator-size racks, which resembled the black monoliths from 2001:  A Space Odyssey.    After two weeks of assemblage, he triumphantly booted up Blue Gene – only to see it repeatedly, and mysteriously, shut down.  For two weeks, Bartschi searched for an explanation, only to discover that a solid steel beam underneath the raised floor was obstructing 50% of the airflow required to keep it cool.  It took another two weeks for Bartschi’s team of six to schlep Blue Gene down the hall.  The next month, a crucial fan broke, and there was no replacement on site.  The part was ordered from Rochester, New York, but, due to a mix-up in shipping, was sent low priority – holding up Blue Gene for more than a week.   Despite such tantrums, Bartschi had developed a soft spot for the machine.  “The whole setup is complex," he said,  “In this sense, it is a living thing.”

Enhanced Imagination Drives Brain-Computer Interface

It's been clear since brain computer interfaces were developed, that customizing these devices would require learning both on the part of the machine and the human. New research in the Proceedings of the the Academy of the Sciences gives evidence that humans quickly adapt to BCIs.

A team of neurologists and computer scientists at the University of Washington recruited epilepsy patients awaiting surgery and recorded their brain activity with electrocorticography (electrodes attached to the surface of the brain) before and after they manipulated a simple BCI. You can find the full article here, to the right of the press release.

First of all, here's what they did. They recorded during three circumstances: when patients imagined moving their hand, when they actually moved it, and when they moved a computer cursor by manipulating a BCI. The activity during the imagined task mapped roughly onto the recordings from the actual movement, but were less powerful. When the patients hooked up to the BCI, the pattern was again similar, but the signal much stronger than both the other recordings.

The press release pitched this as evidence that BCIs are a "workout" for the brain. I don't completely buy this. The brain isn't a muscle and more activity doesn't necessarily mean it's operating at a higher level. What it does indicate (to me), and what I find far more interesting, is that people can quickly change their brain activity to accommodate BCIs. It also shows how important visual feedback is to people who are manipulating these devices. Experiments like this seem like a good way to maximize the level of feedback a user is getting and to test out different ways of delivering it.

It's also substantial proof that the brain activity produced when we imagine a movement or task can effectively drive BCIs. Every group that's developing BCIs right now is doing it slightly differently. So far, there is no clear consensus on which brain signals should be used.

This is the first paper I've seen that focused fully on what brain activity looks like when it's manipulating a BCI. The output of the setup was a cursor moving on a screen. The experiment is a good indication that BCIs have become well enough understood that we can use them in experiments as tools to once again study the brain itself.

That being said, there are also some really interesting things to be learned from this article about the brain in general and the difference between imagining and actuating movement. Here are a couple points that may get you to read it and some questions you can respond to if you do.

1. During both tasks, high frequency signals increase while low frequency signals decrease. Does this mean that part of attending to a task is muting some of the competing activity?

2. Of these two, it is the signal that decreases which map similarly in both imagery and movement. Does this mean you could further localize an area that controls movement imagery in the high frequency signals?

AT&T Wireless Adds Windows Phone 7 Series

Microsoft is a distant third when it comes to mobile phone operating systems, but the company has a legendary marketing ability to hang tough and emerge on top. So the long-awaited announcement of Windows Mobile 7 (or “Windows Phone 7 Series,” as Microsoft now styles it) was picked over by the trade press like a leftover turkey carcass on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

It didn’t take long for the vultures to notice that Microsoft named AT&T its “premier partner” in the United States (Deutsche Telekom AG, Orange, SFR, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Telstra, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone are others around the world)—nor for them to start circling the two partners with questions.

As PC World's Tony Bradley pointed out, no one really knows what a premier partnership consists of. Does it matter? Let the griping begin. AT&T already can’t handle the volume of data that iPhones are generating, and beginning in April, iPad data will only swamp it further. And now AT&T is going to take on a new data-heavy collection of smartphones from Microsoft?

Speaking as a a founding iPhone user from its initial release in June 2007, I can say that each and every complaint about AT&T is borne out by my own experience. Neither the quality of the phone nor the data connection seems related to the number of bars, and calls are dropped repeatedly and at random—it’s rare for me to complete any but the shortest conversations without redialing. And that's as true of my shiny 3GS as it was of the original phone.

I can’t count the number of people who’ve told me they’re getting an iPhone—as soon as it becomes available on their current carrier, which is inevitably Verizon.

In the 10 years or so (pre-iPhone) that Verizon was my carrier, I never experienced a dropped call that seemed random. Sure, there were occasional dead spots—the New York State Thruway a few minutes north of the Harriman toll plaza, for example—but calls were (forgive the term) reliably dropped there, and never in other frequently-travelled places. And sure, once in a while I couldn’t make a call, but whenever the carrier opened a connection, it stayed up for the duration of the call, no matter how long.

Verizon seems to have such confidence in its network that it is now allowing Skype calls on a large fraction of its smartphones.

That is, the carrier is letting subscribers use the 3G data network to make voice-over-IP calls, which cuts down on the number of minutes a user needs and loads the data network with those calls instead. That’s right: fewer billable minutes, more unbilled data. Other than a better user experience for its customers, there’s absolutely nothing good about this from Verizon’s point of view.

True, the carrier is making the best of some upcoming rule changes at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, but it says a lot that Verizon is just going ahead with the change early, and doing so in the most open and user-friendly way, while AT&T fights the rule change tooth and nail.

I don’t miss Verizon’s chaotic billing practices (the ones that are so bad they’ve inspired a Website called, but I do miss being able to call Customer Service late at night and on Sunday, yet another way in which AT&T's user experience falls short. Most of all, I miss Verizon’s rock-solid network.

Electric Power Plant Explosion Reveals History's Biggest Lesson

Who was it that said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”? Proof of their wisdom came on 7 February, three days after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board held a public hearing to present its initial findings regarding the cause of the natural gas explosion that rocked a ConAgra Food plant in Garner, N.C., the previous June. (The ConAgra plant is the world’s sole producer of Slim Jim, the beef jerky snack with the dimensions of two or three cigarettes put together end to end.)

Just after 11 a.m., a huge explosion and fire were set off at the Kleen Power Plant in Middletown, Conn., when workers there attempted to purge a natural gas pipeline by venting the inert gases used to test whether there are any leaks in the system. Where did they vent the gas? Indoors. The last stage of the test involves flushing out the inert gases with natural gas. Workers apparently relied on their senses of smell to tell them when the inert gas had been fully expelled. The thinking was that the same additive that allows you to smell the gas emitted from your stovetop when there is no flame to consume it would be a good enough indicator that the purging was complete. But it’s now apparent that well before the smell of gas told the workers to shut off the gas or shut the release valve, it had built up to an explosive concentration and was set off by an as yet undetermined ignition source.

The five people who were killed and the 12 others who were injured by the blast and subsequent blaze at the Kleen Power Plant needn’t have suffered those fates. At the Chemical Safety Board hearing in Raleigh, N.C., a few days earlier, experts highlighted several lapses in judgement that together set the stage for the ConAgra explosion that killed three people, injured 71 others, and caused a worldwide Slim Jim shortage. They were basically the same lapses that would doom the workers at the Connecticut power plant.

First of all, the experts noted, natural gas should be vented outdoors, where there is less of a possibility that it might collect and explode. Why it took an august panel of the keenest minds to figure that one out remains a mystery.

The board also recommended that fire safety personnel be present whenever flammable gas lines are being vented and that everyone participating in the procedure is trained in how to do the job properly. Having people on site who know what they’re doing? What a novel idea!

Another important suggestion was that widely available electronic sensors similar to the carbon monoxide detectors in residences be used during this type of operation. What’s known but often overlooked is that relying on the chemical added to gas to make us able to sniff it out is a deadly gamble. Our olfactory sense is set up to respond to changes. After you’ve been in a room with a scent for a while, your brain basically relegates it to the background, a phenomenon known as odor fade. Bottom line: lives were lost and millions of dollars of damage was done for want of a US $40 gadget that anyone can buy on

Though blowing a hole through the side of a billion-dollar electric power plant is nothing to sneeze at, the Middletown explosion didn’t have as great an immediate impact on commerce as the Great Slim Jim Famine of 2009. The Kleen Energy plant, whose construction was said to be 95 percent complete, was being built as part of a decade-long effort to improve southwest Connecticut’s access to electric power. That region—where peak energy demand grew 27 percent between 1999 and 2004—had few local generating facilities and was served by an overmatched patchwork of 115 kilovolt transmission lines. Those lines were the area’s only links to the ISO-New England power pool that had 345-kilovolt cables covering the rest of the state, plus Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

When the power plant was approved by the Connecticut Siting Council, it was envisioned as an additional power source that would feed the two 345 kV lines stretching deep into the state’s southwest corner that were also on the drawing board. It would, its backers argued, prevent repeats of the multiple summer days when municipalities such as New Haven, Norwalk, and Stamford suffered brownouts (wherein a reduction of voltage dims the lights) and rolling blackouts (where power is interrupted for a brief period to keep the system from completely crashing).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Kleen Energy plant’s completion. The global economic downturn that began in 2008 upset power marketers’ projections about demand growth. With businesses going under, others scaling back production, and fewer people moving to the area as the boom went bust, peak demand moved back from the brink. The generating facility was suddenly no longer sorely needed as of yesterday. It could wait well beyond tomorrow.

“Any delay in bringing the Kleen Power facility online will have absolutely no effect on our ability to supply electric power to our customers, nor will it affect the price they pay for electricity,” says Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, southwestern Connecticut’s main utility. “We have a capacity contract [with Kleen Energy’s operators] ensuring that the power would be there if needed, but we’ve already purchased all the power we’ll need for 2010 and most of what we’ll need to meet demand in 2011.”

ISO-New England notes that surplus capacity is available—and not just in Connecticut. “Generating facilities across the country—especially coal-fired ones in the Midwest—are being idled because of insufficient demand,” says Erin O’Brien, a spokesperson for the power pool. O’Brien notes that the demand growth in southwestern Connecticut prior to 2008 would have made the Kleen Power plant’s use as a base load facility a foregone conclusion. Now? “It will run regularly or at intervals, depending on market and system reliability needs,” says O’Brien.

All the more reason why the loss of life on that Sunday morning—where the likely proximate cause was cut corners—was so tragic.


Photo: Douglas Healey/Getty Images

Toyota's Troubles Put EMI Back Into The Spotlight

It’s the floor mats. No, it’s sticky pedals. It’s definitely not the electronics.

That’s what Toyota says about the sudden acceleration problem that led to the recent raft of recalls. But some drivers, newspaper reporters, and engineering professors have their doubts, indicating that interference from electronic devices, built into the car, carried into the car, and even outside the car could be causing the problem.

Toyota has said it proved its point by having an outside firm test the electronics on various car models. The firm reportedly fooled around with engine power and various controls within the car seeing if some odd combination created a surge, but could not generate the problem; Toyota’s press releases about the test didn’t say a word about EMI.

Ahhh, does this bring back memories. Back in the ‘90s, a growing reliance of new aircraft on electronic controls was on a collision course with a growing tendency of passengers to bring multiple personal electronic devices on board. A theoretical potential for interference certainly existed—that’s why air passengers are asked to turn off all electronic devices during takeoff and landing, for those are the most unforgiving parts of the journey. And lots of folks thought—and still think—this restriction is silly.

I reported on this with my colleague Linda Geppert back in 1996, for the article “Do Portable Electronics Endanger Flight,” (IEEE Spectrum, September, 1996). And our conclusion was that yes, electronic devices can cause trouble.

However, that trouble is hard to create on cue. The culprit devices perhaps had to be a little out of spec, generating just a little more RF interference than it should—maybe one that slipped out of the factory that way, or one you dropped and thought had escaped damage. (In personal experience, my husband once had to take a new laptop back because turning it on took out the picture on the TV in the next room.) The position of the device mattered—move it around in the plane and the effect would come and go.

Here’s an example of one report we pulled from a database kept by NASA’s aviation safety reporting system, quoted from the article:

In March, 1993, a large passenger aircraft was at cruise altitude just outside the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when the No. 1 compass suddenly precessed 10 degrees to the right. The first flight attendant was asked to check whether any passengers were operating electronic devices. She said that a passenger in seat X had just turned on his laptop computer.

The report continues, “I asked that the passenger turn off his laptop computer for a period of 10 minutes, which he did. I then asked that the passenger turn on his computer once again. The No. 1 compass immediately precessed 8 degrees to the right. The computer was then turned off for a 30-minute period during which the No. 1 compass operation was verified as normal.”

So yes, RF emissions from electronic devices can cause weird things to happen. Is it happening in the Toyota case? Toyota says no. And, to date, no real evidence says otherwise.

But if I were Toyota, I sure would be checking it out. Because it does look suspicious.

Which brings me to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The Woz has been complaining that his Prius occasionally surges randomly when it’s supposed to be holding steady under cruise control. My first reaction when I heard this was that he was setting up good story to give to the next cop who tickets him for speeding.

And then I remembered: the Woz is a gadget frea'. He inevitably is carrying multiple smart phones (never just one) and countless other consumer electronic gadgets. His friends love to surprise him with gizmos they’ve picked up in other countries that are not yet available in the U.S. And whenever I run into him he immediately shows me his current favorite gadget.  There is no way he turns off all these devices every time he gets in his car. He’s a walking RF fog.

So here’s a suggestion for Toyota. Forget those expensive outside research firms testing your electronics. Line up about a hundred cars, hook up everything electronic that you can measure, and then just let Woz walk by. If his presence has absolutely no effect, then I’ll believe that it’s a “mechanical problem.”

The Latest Barbie is a Computer Engineer

Barbie is now a computer engineer. This represents Barbie’s 126th career change. It’s a late-in-life choice; Barbie is nearly 51.  It took her a while, perhaps, to get her degree—in 1992, a talking Barbie said “math class is tough.” Computer engineer beat out surgeon, environmentalist, and architect in an online poll, coming in second only to news anchor among girls, but with enough support from adults that Mattel went ahead with both dolls.

Computer Engineer Barbie could be popular with the Barbie set (which these days skews towards kindergartners and preschoolers; it seems to get younger every year), if only for her accessories. She’s got glasses (Mattel missed a bet, though; the hip geeks might be more likely to wear lens-less 3-D glasses rather than the pink ones Barbie sports), a Bluetooth earpiece, a t-shirt printed with binary code, a smart phone, and a laptop. 

I’d like to say today’s introduction of Computer Engineer Barbie honors National Engineers Week which kicks off Sunday, but more likely it was timed to coincide with Toy Fair, also opening this weekend.


Tech Talk

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