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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

NASA’s Science Mission Aborted, By David Chandler

Many readers responded quite emotionally to this story about cutbacks in scientific research (not all of them entirely on topic). Here’s a fair sampling of them (we hope):

From xyz: The problem is far bigger than it seems at first sight…restarting a research program always takes a very long lead time, until the necessary know-how is built up, the right people are brought in, and the kinks worked out. Basically, it takes years for a research program to get some real momentum. When the program is terminated, all this system comes crashing down, and you cannot restart it next year by just supplying funds.

From DJE: This administration sees the important fact that space-faring nations are turning their attention toward the moon. By some 50 years after Apollo, more than a few nations will be in the position to launch serious moon programs. Can the U.S. sit by and let this happen, with no capability itself to reach the moon? If it wants to be a leader, it cannot. If it does, it will no longer be leading.

From Robots 4 Ever: We do not have to give up national defense or exploration. Funding is an act of priorities. A manned program increases cost exponentially and adds nothing. We can both explore and attack/defend remotely. Both jobs can be done well [with robots].

From kitk: There are always fewer dollars to spend than there are projects on which to spend them. The excess of wonderful projects is because of human creativity; the lack of research money is called reality. The same people crying for tax dollars are among those who have bellowed for a space station and a return to the moon. We can shoot for only one moon at a time.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Lights, Camera – Jamming, By Kate Greene

From xyz: The technology already exists to beat this jamming system. Go to a professional photo shop and buy yourself an infrared filter and a photographic hood for your camera’s objective.

From Mr. B.: Anyone knows the best way to stop thieves as well as those annoying cell phones is to find a means to disable all electronic devices within the small area of the theater without damaging them in any way. Just the idea of device detection is good, at least that way they can be confiscated before they enter the room. All electronic devices emit a small electromagnetic field – why this cannot be detected I do not know.

From Peter: I see this as a wasteful use of resources, only there to aid those who have something to hide and have the bucks to hide it. Why can’t people do something beneficial to society – like making those digital cameras better?

From Allan: It is always good when the predictions of science fiction are turned into reality: the Thunderbirds TV series presented this capability over 40 years ago!


Wednesday, June 22, 2006

How to Kill a Hard Drive, By Kate Greene

Several readers thought there might be a better way to destroy data, like this one:

From Simone: The solution detailed in this article is a very top-heavy one. If one wants to truly destroy data and maintain the integrity of the machine, so that it can be either reallocated, resold, or chopped up into parts and sold, the answer is [a Finnish-based company,] Blancco (www.blancco.com).


A Hope for Hearing Loss, By Emily Singer

Readers were eager to try out a new technology for aiding with hearing loss.

From R.J.: I didn’t have an iPod but I did have a set of earphones which I used as a radio operator to copy Morse code for the U.S. Army in the 1940s. When the signal strength dropped I turned up the volume. This didn’t help the signal to noise ratio much but did increase the energy level hitting my hearing canal. I use hearing aids now…but what the heck, I’m pretty old now and a lot of things don’t work as well as they did when I was in my teens!

From D.B. (response to R.J.): I’m curious as you seem to be pretty much the perfect target for this. If a gene therapy was available that (in the lab) was proven to restore your hearing, would you try it out? Why? Why not?

From C.H.: I’ve had hearing trouble forever. I was the earache princess when I was younger; now I’m the hearing loss queen.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Cooling Computers with Tiny Jet Engines, By Wade Roush

This story drew a lot of attention. Here’s a range of reader responses.

From Chris: These are not jet engines. They are nothing more than little electric fans inside a shroud. The shroud improves the efficiency of the fan.

From Phil (in reply to Chris): Only in the title are these fans referred to as “jet engines” and it could be argued that the adjective is “tiny jet” and not “tiny” modifying “jet engine.”

From B.K.: Having worked with those fans and having run an IT shop for 11 years, I can tell you those fans will be very loud. And the heat has to go someplace, so larger cooling systems are needed.

From Nihls: I don’t think this is getting the credit it deserves. I have tried everything to manage heat, noise, and size. If I can increase air flow, reduce size, decrease wattage, and reduce the number of cooling devices, I would be very happy. This will change modern cooling and push us well past the 4.0 gigahertz processor block.

From Jeff: Some groups involved in data-center cooling include www.7x24exchange.org, www.afcom.com, www.uptimeinstitute.com, www.tc99.ashraetcs.com, and www.datacenterdynamics.com, to name a few – it’s a hot industry topic with conferences almost every month.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Google Fatigue Sets In, By Wade Roush

Quite a few readers thought we were off base in this story, which wondered if Google’s latest offering, Google Spreadsheets, indicates a lack of focus. A letter from Bob summed up many sentiments:

Did somebody actually think a financial analyst would use it? If this was an auto magazine reviewing a new family van, you wouldn’t ask Jeff Green to take it out on the track. Think about a large user base that doesn’t need anything complex, maybe they just take stuff out of a database and put it in a spreadsheet so they can send it to clients. This application is about everybody except power users. It’s about sharing. Google wouldn’t have come up with it if they didn’t sense pain somewhere. Tell your grandma to open the spreadsheet the stock broker sent her that she couldn’t open because he uses a different version of Excel (which she thinks is a sports drink).

From B.: From my observations, Google doesn’t just release a product and stop adding features. The beauty of Google is that they release a base set of capabilities – get the product out the door – and then add more features in subsequent releases. If you are a user of Gmail, you will have observed this development approach.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Regrowing the Damaged Brain, By Emily Singer

From Allan: This approach may also be applicable to situations where a person is looking to retrain themselves on a new task or in a new area. Of course, the current need to intrusively place the electrode within the skull would have to be replaced by an external electrode, either by using higher density fields, or by the use of a skull cap that reflects and concentrates the current in the desired area.

From Boris: Has any attempt been made to apply electromagnetic techniques in the treatment of genetically affected brain when motor centers are concerned?

From Spencer: I have brain damage due to cerebral palsy and would be highly interested in an attempt to use this procedure for people with similar conditions.


New Imaging Techniques Find Hidden Scars in Brain, By Emily Singer

From Mike: Could this technology be used for identifying causes of some types of back pain? Some back pain, and possibly other types, too, occur in soft tissue and precise causes are never found and therefore cured.


Cheap Drinking Water from the Ocean, by Aditi Risbud

From Mark: As important as cheap desalination is in a world with dwindling potable water supplies, I’m more excited at the prospect of cheap and efficient gas and particle filtration. Might this technology make coal-fired power generators environmentally sound?

From Justin (reply to Mark): Just because you are able to trap the gases escaping from a coal-fired plant doesn’t mean you can dispose of them cheaply. CO2 gas still has to be put somewhere; currently, we just put it back in the ground, but this is just a stop gap measure.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Cleaner, Cheaper Route to Titanium, By Neil Savage

From Hal: Did your titanium researchers take a look at this site: http://www.britishtitanium.co.uk/loader.html? British Titanium is a company formed to exploit the FCC titanium electrolytic production process, invented in 1997. BTI has had their pilot plant going very successfully. It seems their electrolysis process is much simpler than MIT’s, and uses less energy. MIT’s may still be better, but it may also be BTI’s, or yet another.

From Mark: The need for heat and electricity makes titanium smelting a great candidate for solar power. Concentrating, non-imaging reflectors can produce temperatures up to 6,000 degrees C, well above the 1,700 degrees needed for titanium, with enough left to generate electricity for the electrolysis step. Added benefit: intermittency is not an issue. Just make titanium while the sun shines.

From George (reply to Mark): Solar is not viable for titanium production because it’s a 24/7 proposition – to do otherwise is to lose efficiency and a whole lot of energy wasted cooling off and restarting when the sun goes behind a cloud or sets. Non-base load dependent applications are better suited to solar.

From Martin (reply to Mark): Mark makes a good point. How’s this for an image: a group of solar smelters on a Black Sand beach ably tended by a group of itinerant surfers? On a serious note, however, the solar notion makes possible the rendering of titanium in marginal circumstances.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Heavy-Duty Hybrids, By Kevin Bullis

From Sandra: Go truck shopping. You’ll find that a diesel engine costs significantly more than a gas engine, but they are still purchased in droves because they are dependable, produce more torque (a requirement for big rigs), are more efficient, and, most importantly, can be fixed. Organizations relying on heavy trucks are expected to switch not because of the expense, but dependability. When a hybrid needs to be serviced, it must go back to the dealer. You can’t pull into any old repair facility and have the problem fixed. Vocational-Tech schools should take the initiative and begin adding hybrid repair to the mechanic training choices. I’m a 40-year-old woman who drives a 1982 Chevy diesel with 446,000 miles. When it breaks, I fix it. I’d love to eventually replace it with a hybrid, but I know my greasy fingers days would be over. Reliability and maintenance are the issues, not cost.

From Ev: Instead of providing incentives for gas-guzzling SUVs, the Feds should penalize them and provide incentives for energy-efficient vehicles such as hybrid trucks. Owners need incentives to take risks on new technology like this. And the dollars spent will pay off a lot sooner than on radically different technologies, such as fuel cells.

From JGB: Do a Google on “Ford hydraulic hybrid F150”. Seems Ford has made the business case [for hybrid trucks].

Human Study Shows Benefits of Caloric Restriction, By Emily Singer

From Steve: Interesting research. But it should be noted that such a diet increases the risk of influenza and other infectious diseases at every stage of life.

From Steve: How do these low-calorie types fuel exercise? Do you have to give that up?


Monday, June 05, 2006

Encryption Software May Halt Wire Tapping, By Kate Greene

From T.T.: Suppose you are using an unbreakable encryption software, and then, unbeknownst to you, someone secretly breaks it. Now what you were so certain was encrypted is wide open to the world. Better to assume a 100-percent wiretap than regret temporary and illusory assurances.

Tumor-Killing Bacteria, By Emily Singer

From kitk: It has long been known that some disease organisms selectively attack cancer cells, but little work has been done on said medicine. It’s about time!


Friday, June 02, 2006

Microsoft in India, By Wade Roush

From Prasad: Nice to see Microsoft taking this up in a big way. Here are links to similar efforts that were worked on earlier at Apple Advanced Technology Group and CMC in the mid-to-late 1990s: http://www.acm.org/sigchi/bulletin/1998.2/graves.html. This research and development resulted in a World Bank-funded pilot deployed in 2003: http://www.cmcltd.com/news_events/press_releases/200304apr/20030415.htm.

Intel’s New Strategy: Power Efficiency, By Kate Greene

From Cru: This is how operational time on a battery charge will be improved across the entire computer and portable electronics devices arena. It won’t be from some breakthrough battery technology, and certainly not through crazy methanol or hydrogen “fool-sells.”

An Alternative to your Alternator, By Kevin Bullis

From CKE: Don’t get too excited yet. To sustain combustion, a good amount of heat will go up the flue with waste gases via convection. As for undetectable in the field – ever heard of infrared cameras? There will be a heat plume visible from far away. Past thermovoltaic efforts have fooled with light filters, special emitters, etc. As I understand, they have not cracked 30 percent efficiency either. I wonder if, at the end of the day, system efficiency is not much better than the common ICE/alternator.

A Know-It-All IM Buddy, By Eric W. Pfeiffer

From Drew: Quece, an AI-based natural language processor technology, is being positioned as “conversational search” because it is capable of interacting with the user via IM to hone his/her search query. The Quece beta was released in March. If interested, check it out at www.quece.com.


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Who’s Sorry Now? By Jason Pontin

From Richard: This is not a new idea, this is a rehash of the notion of a customer-focused business. The concept of building what your customers want, rather than what you want to or are able to build is not new and applies to all industries.

From Amnon: The real problem with IT, computers, and the hi-tech sector is that they’re unimportant. Does it really better people’s lives to have 2 GHz computers, tabbed-browsing, and other glitzy tech knickknacks? A good knee-support would bring real improvement and more joy to more people than the entire computer industry.

From S.B.: “By contrast,” Coburn says, “technology is widely hated by its users,” because ordinary folk loathe change. Therefore, any new artifact, no matter how much its various features might appeal to technologists, will always be rejected by its intended customers, unless “the pain in moving to a new technology is lower than the pain of staying in the status quo.” What arrogance! A great many of us grew up on science fiction and embrace change. We don’t hate tech – we hate machines that are complicated to run, break down frequently, and have customer support that is clueless.

From V.S.: Blinded by greed, the business people misled the industry. All the market research studies and sales projections were orders of magnitude wrong. The technologists delivered the technology, but the market was not there. So the bubble burst.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

From Information Freeway to Toll Road, By Wade Roush

From David: The article creates a dangerous mistaken impression when it says, “this tradition of ‘network neutrality’ has never had the force of law. Now a movement is afoot in Congress to codify this egalitarian idea…” In fact, the idea of network neutrality has its roots in the concept of ‘common carriage,’ which dates back to the beginning of the telegraph system. Recent events – the 2003 FCC Triennial Order, the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision, the 2005 FCC DSL Order and others – have effectively repealed the laws enforcing network neutrality. Today a minority in Congress is trying to restore the force of law to network neutrality.

From C.B.: So, if the ISPs have a log of who sent what to whom, and what the content was – then what? These days we might be justified in being paranoid!


Plug-In Hybrids Are on the Way, By Kevin Bullis

This story generated dozens of discussion threads on aspects of this technology. Here’s a sampling from just one thread (plus one more). As usual, click on the title to read all story postings.

From Sean: Maybe I’m being having a dense moment (it happens), but it wasn’t too long ago we were hearing how strained the power system was by everybody’s computers and air conditioners being on all the time. Wouldn’t having lots of people plug their cars in all night be a bit of a problem here? (Okay, I know there wouldn’t be a large percentage of the population buying these cars any time soon, but still.)

From Matt: Grid strain is only an issue in peak times. Off-peak night times are ideal for charging batteries.

From Paul: Uncontrolled charging of plug-in hybrids in the evening would be a problem if this was coincident with power levels on the local grid. This can be addressed by offering time-of-use rates and an automatic control (i.e., time clock) to initiate vehicle charge after the “peak” power period has passed. However, this requires the local utility to install time-of-use meters so the consumer can be offered the lower electric rate. A more Draconian measure would be to “allow” plug-in hybrid charging only if you had an electronic time clock and not provide a discount to the consumer. That would be nearly impossible to enforce, although academically interesting to talk about.

From Sherry: The off-peak, night-time capacity of existing power plants could handle approximately 80 million plug-in hybrids before we’d need to think about adding a power plant. Details and more in my upcoming book, “Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America.”

From Phil: It’s dishonest to claim 100-plus miles per gallon in this car by discounting the primary fuel used to create the electricity used while plugging in…A kilowatt in my area already costs 20 cents, and I know I don’t live in the most expensive power region in the United States. Other countries as a whole pay as much as 30 cents.


Monday, May 22, 2006

This Is Your Brain on Nanotubes, By Katherine Bourzac

From Gireesh (in response to a posting wondering if nanotubes could be used with comas): Whether it will work on patients with coma will depend on the cause of coma. If we can develop probes that can specifically stimulate areas of brain that are affected in comatose patients, for example, reticular activating system or frontal cortex, it would work. But of course there is a long way to go. I am sure one day it will be possible at least in a section of comatose patients.

From Richard: Any possibility of replacing or regenerating retinal rods and cones? This is encouraging.


The Real Pain of Dread, By Emily Singer

From Brunascle: I’ve read that as a person is thinking about a past event (or image or sound), the same parts of the brain are activated that were activated when the event first occurred, to the point where it’s actually difficult by looking at the brain activity to tell whether the event is a memory or actually occurring at that time. I’m wondering if, as the subjects were waiting for the electrical shock, they were reliving a past event in which they were painfully shocked, in which case the same pain receptors would be activated.

From Wade: If dread about an upcoming experience can be worse than the actual experience, I wonder if the opposite is true. Can the anticipation of a pleasant event (say, going on a cruise or buying a video iPod) be more intense than the fun of the actual experience? Could this be one explanation for buyer’s remorse? I wonder how the researchers at Emory would attack that question.


Monday, May 15, 2006

A Clue to Living Longer, By Courtney Humphries

From Jacques: Both insulin and growth hormone work to promote growth in the body, so it should be no surprise that knocking one or the other out would have the same effect. Their expression is believed to be linked through IGF1, but the exact path has yet to be worked out. It would be interesting to see what happens to this strain when subjected to caloric restriction, however.

From Steve: Who said calorie restriction in humans promotes longevity? Long life runs in families and longs legs run in others. We’re just trying to get a leg or two up. Problem is that when you try to stand on the shoulders of rats it just makes you hungry. I say eat the rat meat of the long-lived ones!


Google Pledges Transparency, Debuts New Gadgets, By Wade Roush

From Harry: What happened to Google Wallet? Seems that these projects don’t generate revenue unless ads are going to show up.

From Colin: Has anyone noticed recently that the quality of Google search results has deteriorated? Queries that used to bring up relevant information with current links will now sometimes bring up less relevant info and outdated links. There was an article about it recently on reddit.com, which claimed it was related to the “big” infrastructure “upgrade” Google completed recently.

From Geoff (in reply to Colin): I would bet it has more to do with Google-bombing than with Google itself. The general public is learning how Google works, and whole companies exist to push results. Google’s plan to change their search algorithms would directly counter this effect, intentionally or not. They must keep changing these or their results will wane, along with profits.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Webcasting Gets a Reprieve, By Wade Roush

From A.H.R.: This smells of an attempt to add a new right on top of the Universal Copyright Convention. It is a wrong approach that could drain validity from the convention. The place to address this problem, if indeed there is a legitimate problem, is in the UCC.


Automotive AC Makers Are Sweating , by Peter Fairley

From K.: Frankly, I never bought into the whole “danger to the ozone shield” theory. Chlorofluocarbons are very heavy molecules, and the “ozone holes” reported tend to occur exactly where they would naturally. But this makes loads of money for activist groups – and researchers.

From Ynot (in response to K.): Then researchers of all stripes fabricated results that indicate increased concentration of CFC’s in the upper atmosphere. Then they also have to demonstrate reaction pathways for the destruction of ozone that really couldn’t occur. It is amazing how much some people wish to disbelieve hard science.


France’s Effort to Spawn a New Google, by Peter Fairley

From Dave: Maybe they should repeal the law that makes it a crime to work more than 48 hours a week…But that’s an EU law too.

From Alexis: If France wants to innovate, it has to increase research wages.

From Crafton: It’s a matter of motivation and belief; everyone in France feels the country has aged…People of France, wake up!


Hydrogen Reality Check, By Kevin Bullis

This energy-transportation-hydrogen story drew several dozen responses. Here are just three of them.

From Mark: The energy issue goes beyond just vehicles. Many are turning to electricity to reduce the demand for fossil fuels in the home or office. Since nuclear is still has issues for many, the fuel cell may find its home producing electricity for residential use. It may also find a place with the automobile – although not on the car but in the garage as a source of power for the hybrid.

From Dan: Your argument failed to mention the tax break people got for buying a vehicle over something like 4,000 lbs. It allowed a business to deduct the full cost of that vehicle in one year; consequently, you have all sorts of self-employed professionals and their families driving Suburbans and other SUVs that do not need them for work. Thankfully, that’s been repealed.

From Ted: Check out www.eagle-research.com. He claims 80 MPG.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Times Emulates Print on the Web, By Wade Roush

From Donald: My first reaction is: We already have a platform neutral tool, CSS [Cascading Style Sheets]. It will take some experience with MS’s WPF to demonstrate whether it is really a new and better publishing tool, or whether it is just another MS marketing tool.

From Matt: This is different if only because it allows for rehyphenation and reflow when the window size changes – which means the article author/designer doesn’t specify hard line breaks – the Reader software does. That lets you target deskbound machines, laptops, cellphones, PDAs, wall-mounted displays, and the like, without having to re-create the source material. PDF can’t do that. That said, I wish they’d just release a browser that was CSS compliant.

From Art: Acrobat blows chunks. Well, maybe it’s just that all the uses I’ve seen of it do. This is the computer age. We need to be able to easily search through documents, and they should come with comprehensive indexes that let the reader quickly jump to issues that seem of interest…If it takes a Microsoft to fix this, more power to them.

From Gerald: With Acrobat files, it is possible to set up an index, as well as a table of contents and other cool little gizmos, but the person creating the file needs to do a little extra work. [Some people and businesses] put as little effort into their .pdf files as possible, and so come out with a crummy product.


Monday, May 01, 2006

Neuro Clues to the Mysteries of Acupuncture, By Emily Singer

From Betty: My speech returned after a stroke in 2000 with regular acupuncture.

From Ed (in reply to Betty): Interesting, but it is possible that your speech would have returned without regular acupuncture. It is also possible that your recovery was due to the placebo effect instead of the acupuncture itself. This is why it is necessary to develop effective placebos to use in clinical trials of acupuncture. I find the results reported in this article, and your recovery, promising. I hope this study will stimulate further studies into the mechanisms of acupuncture.

From Jayakar: Acupuncture may have an influence on interactomics [interactions among proteins in cells].


Tiny Lenses Offer Wide-Angle View, By Kate Greene

From N.T.B.: It’s fascinating how many nanotech advances are the result of biomimicry – the conscious copying of examples and mechanisms from natural organisms and ecologies – in this case dragonfly and housefly eyes. It’s good to see scientists getting “back to nature” in this way. Let’s hope they care to mimic the bigger principles of nature like sustainability and biodiversity while they’re at it.

From B.R.: During the past several years more than 80 patents and patent pendings have emerged that can be regarded as biomimetic in origin…The message is clear: product design engineers need to ask if biology offers important solutions or insights to their design problems.

From Mike: Can this technique be scaled up to make larger lenses for passively collecting solar light and focusing it into a transport fiber (fiber-optic cable assembly), so the light and energy can be redirected anywhere it’s needed? A lens with this many facets would eliminate the need for tracking systems currently used in solar collectors.

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