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Friday, January 30, 2009

Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green Drive Preview

Late last week Western Digital briefed us on their forthcoming release of a new addition to their Caviar Green family of hard drives. No we're not talking some sort of exotic sushi or cracker-bound fish egg here either but rather a new, rather humongous and environmentally more friendly hard drive from WD, that can be considered an "industry first". Today marks the day that standard rotational media breaks the 2TB barrier. Let's spell that out a bit more clearly again here; T-W-O full Terabytes of SATA-based storage on a single, standard 3.5" hard drive. Those of you on the consumer side of the market, hording gigs of music, movies, pictures and other media just got a bunch more breathing room to play with. And those of you in the enterprise space now have a new option to consider with respect to bulk, low-cost, power-efficient storage. Perhaps that rack just got a little smaller or the need to cool it a little less?

Today Western Digital is announcing their WD20EADS drive, otherwise known as the WD Caviar Green 2.0TB. With 32MB of onboard cache and special power management algorithms that balance spindle speed and transfer rates, the WD Caviar Green 2TB claims a top rung spot on the density-per-square-inch and power-efficiency ladders.

We've had an engineering sample here in house for a few days and have done some preliminary testing on it. We'll be offering a full performance evaluation with the final revision of this new drive in the coming weeks but we have a sneak peek for you here. Let's start with the specifications and then we'll take a closer look at the vital signs.


  • Capacity: 2TB (400Gb/ areal density)
  • 32MB cache buffer
  • Variable spindle speed
  • 3.5-inch form-factor
  • 500GB/platter, 4-platter design
  • 3Gb/sec SATA with NCQ
  • SATA power connector only
  • PMR head technology
  • RoHS compliant

Formatted capacity - Windows Vista 32-bit, NTFS partition

Though our test system and the OS sees the drive as 1.81TB, as you can see here, there are over 2 trillion bytes of available capacity on this new, freshly formatted hard drive, with 147MB used just for the file system alone. Below are some quick and dirty performance numbers with HD Tach and SANDRA. We should underscore that we're testing a pre-release engineering sample here, so performance figures could scale higher as firmware revision are made to the product.

SANDRA and HD Tach Preliminary Performance - Engineering Sample, Firmware Not Final

A quick glance at the numbers here show this new big-boy Caviar Green drive from WD offering more than competitive performance versus the likes of Samsung's Spinpoint F1 and Seagate's Barracuda 7200.11 -- both 7200RPM-based products. HD Tach shows an average read speed of 90MB/s and average writes at 80MB/s. We'll be digging into performance metrics with other tools like IOMeter in the days ahead but this early view certainly looks good for a disk with this sort of capacity. We'll be looking at power as well but WD claims this drive drops in somewhere around 7 Watts under read/write load and 5 Watts at idle. With the ever-increasing demand for bulk storage, this new WD drive offers a smaller carbon footprint as well, with a full 2TB available in a single 3.5" drive.

MSRP for the new ginormous Caviar is set at $299. You can catch the official press release from WD, here. Stay tuned for the full HH monty with WD's new big-bad Caviar, coming soon.

Video: Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Story In Second Life

By Nate Ralph Email

With some help from her daughter's Second Life avatar, Holocaust survivor Fanny Starr met with a group of the virtual world's citizens to share her personal experience of the horrors of genocide.

The video, while only a few minutes long, provides a brief glimpse of the horrors she endured, including an encounter with the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. The lecture becomes especially noteworthy in light of the technology being leveraged -- the 87-year-old Starr has given many similar talks on her experiences throughout the past 30 years, but Second Life allowed her to reach a much wider audience without the burden of travel.

The full lecture is over an hour long, but features an in-depth question and answer session with members of the audience. A video is available from Second Life user GeoMeek.

Need Salt? Mini-"Pyramids" from World's Largest Salt Plain

The View from the Seven Highest Peaks on Earth

*Please note: as the seven highest peaks in the world are in the Himalayas the article looks at the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Actual highest peaks are at the end of the article.

Kilimanjaro view
Image: eirasi

Only a select few have conquered the Seven Summits, a grueling challenge that involves climbing the highest peak of every continent. They’ve seen the spectacular mountain-top views firsthand, and now you get a chance to soak in the scenery too as we go on a whirlwind tour of images captured by these exceptional mountaineers. So come along as we travel from the highest of them all – Mt. Everest – to the Western Hemisphere and Europe, to warm climes in Australia, Indonesia and Africa, and to the coldest ends of the earth.

But first, an explanation: Because of conflicting continental border definitions, there are actually two lists of the Seven Summits; the first was created by Richard Bass and the second revised by Reinhold Messner shortly after. Without question, six of the seven peaks on each list match, although one is disputed: Bass chose Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 m) as the highest peak in Australia whereas Messner decided on the more challenging Carstensz Pyramid (4,884 m) in Indonesia as the top of Australia-New Guinea.

In any case, bravo to the 229 people who have completed all seven on either list, and major kudos to the 81 who have summitted all eight!

1. Everest (Asia): 8,848 m (29,029 ft)

We start with the tallest, and perhaps the most famous of peaks in the world, Mt. Everest. It is located in the Himalayan range, which features the highest mountains in the world. This is a view from the camp at 8,300 m:

Camp 3 8,300 m
Image: Se7en Summits

2. Aconcagua (South America): 6,962 m (22,841 ft)

Outside of Asia, Aconcagua wins the title of highest mountain. It is located just inside the Argentine border near Chile. Here, climbers look like ants on a hill, ascending alongside a cloud of swirling snow:

Climbing up Aconcagua

A beautiful sunrise view from Aconcagua, just below the summit:

Sunrise just below the summit
Image: Divine Madman

3. Mount McKinley (North America): 6,194 m (20,320 ft)

A trip to the far north brings us to Mount McKinley, or Denali, which means ‘The Great One’. Denali is difficult not only because of the extreme cold; it also sits on a plateau of 610 m (2,000 feet), with a demanding rise of 5,500 m (18,000 feet). In contrast, even though Everest is almost 2,700 m (9,000 feet) higher than Denali as measured from sea level, it sits on a plateau at 5,200 m (17,000 feet) and only has a vertical rise of just over 3,700 m (12,000 feet).

Top of McKinley
Image: Se7en Summits

4. Kilimanjaro (Africa): 5,895 m (19,341 ft)

Kilimanjaro is located in northeastern Tanzania. A dormant volcano, the famous peak has drawn worldwide attention in recent years because of a dramatic drop in ice cap volume.

Here are a couple of striking views from the top:

Kilimanjaro summit view
Image: eirasi

Kilimanjaro summit view 2
Image: algaedoc

5. Elbrus (Europe): 5,642 m (18,510 ft)

Located in Russia, Mt. Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe. Like Kilimanjaro, Elbrus is also a dormant volcano. The shape of the summit is described by its ancient Latin name Strobilus – pine cone – which is derived from the ancient Greek word strobilos, or ‘a twisted object’.

Sunrise on Elbrus
Image: John Brennan

6. Vinson Massif (Antarctica): 4,892 m (16,050 ft)

Vinson Massif is the top of the bottom of the world. Located in the Ellesworth Mountains in Antarctica, the massif was first spotted by the US Navy in 1958. Here’s a view from space:

Vinson Massif from space
Vinson Massif from space

And another view here on earth:

On the way up Vinson Massif
Image: Se7en Summits

7a. Carstensz Pyramid (Australia-New Guinea): 4,884 m (16,024 ft)
Messner List only

Carstensz Pyramid, named after a Dutch explorer of the same name, is an equatorial mountain in Indonesia. A mountaineering challenge, Carstensz is also unforgettable for another reason: kitty-corner to the mountain is the Grasberg (Freeport) mine, which is home to the world’s the largest gold mine and the world’s third largest copper mine. Acid rock drainage, copper contamination and dangerously steep slopes have environmentalists and local citizens up in arms about the the mine’s environmental and safety hazards.

Image: Se7en Summits

Top view of Carstensz
Image: NASA

7b. Kosciuszko (Australia): 2,228 m (7,310 ft)
Bass List only

Much shorter than any of the other mountains listed previously, Kosciusko has been called an ‘easy hike’ when compared to the other summits. Even so, the views from up high are nevertheless spectacular:

Top of Kosciuszko
Image: Splatt

Stairway to Kosciuszko
Image: Splatt

Highest Peaks in the World

1. Everest Nepal/Tibet 8,850m 29,035ft
2. K2 (Godwin Austen) Pakistan/China 8,611m 28,250ft
3. Kangchenjunga Nepal/India 8,586m 28,169ft
4. Lhotse Nepal/Tibet 8,516m 27,940ft
5. Makalu Nepal/Tibet 8,463m 27,766ft
6. Cho Oyu Nepal/Tibet 8,201m 26,906ft
7. Dhaulagiri Nepal 8,167m 26,795ft

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Ranking The Superbowl Hookers

Well according to the Smoking Gun, a ton of prostitutes have been arrested so far at the Superbowl. Shocker right? Anyway to say that they are the most disgusting collection of bitches in the history of mankind would be an understatement. But since it is the Superbowl I felt it was my duty to go and rank them all....

#16 - The Herp


Rumor has it that one Steeler fan upon arriving in Tampa and being solicited by this whore turned to his buddy and asked "Is this Heaven?"

#15 - The Thing


This is a "do you remember that weekend" type of prostitute. I bet 99% of her business comes from buddies playing pranks on their friends. I mean I don't even know what this thing is, but I guarantee you this much; 2 minutes with it will change your life forever.

#14 - The Romantic


This ho ain't even looking for money. She just wants some dick. I mean she totally went out and bought a fancy little black dress for the occasion. Probably set her back 3 months rent.

#13 - Patty


A legend in the prostitute game and still a monster on the senior circuit. Probably partied with Sinatra and slept with JFK. Sure, her pussy probably doesn't even work anymore, but she's still worth the price of admission just for the stories.

#12 - The Black Widow


Ah, the black widow. You knew she wouldn't miss a 50 year storm. Still one of the more controversial prostitutes out there. Lots of her competitors complain that using the massage table to lure in customers is like using steroids in baseball.

#11 - The Convict


Without a doubt this psycho was either just released from prison or just escaped from prison. Either way if you don't want to get robbed or mutilated I'd stay away from her.

#10 - The Single Mother


This slut clearly has like 17 kids at home. And she probably talks about them while you're fucking her too. No thanks. I don't pay for sex to get depressed and listen to bitches whine about how their home life sucks. I can get that for free.

#9 - The Intimidator


This chick is all business. She'll fuck you till you squeal, (maybe with her own dick) blow cigarette smoke in your face and ask questions later.

#8 - Eyebrows


Whatever you do with this bitch don't mention her eyebrows. Because she's totally normal until somebody mentions them and then she snaps and you're as good as dead.

#7 - The Minority


I'm a sucker for turquoise and tit tattoos. Always have been, always will be.

#6 - The Beehive


If this chick would gain some confidence and lose the beehive she could be a contender. It's too bad because she's a real catch in Tampa this week.

#5 - Ash Tray Money, Bro


This chick will rough fuck the shit out of you. Probably won't even give you time to put on a condom either. Just shove you down, bang you silly all while having a butt hanging out her mouth which will eventually burn you.

#4 - Straight Arrow Gennaro


The Straight Arrow Gennaro of prostitutes. Just a professional's professional. She 'll give you an honest fuck every time out an that's all you can really ask for in the prostitute game.

#3 - The Joe Montana Fan


All this bitch does is reminisce about how much better the "Pimp N Ho" game was back in the 80's and how she blew all her money on coke and 49ers gear, blah, blah, blah.

#2 - The Opportunist


You could do a lot worse than this chick. She may actually look presentable when not in jail. It wouldn't surprise me if some degenerate Steeler fan asks her to marry him before the weekend is out.

#1 - The Best of the Rest

sThe Rolls Royce of Hookers at the Superbowl this year. Sure it seems like she has two eardrums or something, but you don't fuck the ear. Well I guess you could if you were super kinky, but most people don't. I love the "Campus" shirt too. Nothing beats a "hip" prostitute.

Texas Approves $5B Worth of Transmission Line Projects

In a move to boost its inadequate electric transmission network, Texas awarded $5 billion worth of transmission projects to nearly a dozen companies.

The majority of the projects went to Oncor, Electric Transmission Texas, Sharyland Utilities, Lower Colorado River Authority, Isolux Corsan, LS Power Group and Lone Star Transmission, reported Reuters. The state could see as much as 2,900 miles of new power lines when all the projects are complete.

New transmission capacity is sorely needed in Texas. The state's current grid cannot adequately handle the explosive growth in wind energy generation, particularly in the western part of the state (see Texas Consortium Seeks $4.93B for Transmission Line).

As a result, wind farm operators sometimes pay the grid operator to take the power they produce in order to take advantage of a lucrative federal production tax credit (see Texas Wind Farms Paying People to Take Power).

Texas leads the nation in wind energy production. It has roughly 7,110 megawatts worth of generation capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Iowa comes in second at 2,790 megawatts, followed by California at 2,517 megawatts.

The Next Big Fuel Crop: Eucalyptus

It's the "Fat Boy of Feedstocks," says Jim Imbler, CEO of Zeachem, which hopes to use the trees to produce fuel. Koalas love it. California park rangers rue the day it came to the U.S. And someday, your car may run on it.

Ethanol makers are increasingly becoming interested in using eucalyptus as a feedstock, says James Imbler, CEO of Zeachem, particularly in ethanol-happy Brazil. Zeachem, which will start producing fuel in 2010, wants to sell fuel both in the U.S. and Brazil.

"There is a lot of interest from Brazil in eucalyptus," he said during a tour of the company's labs. "It is a phenomenal tree in biomass. It is the fat boy."

Passing familiarity with eucalyptus pretty much can provide an answer. The trees grow rapidly in dry soils and because of their height, they offer pretty of good density per acre. Zeachem will initially make its fuel out of farmed poplar trees, another fast-growing species, but it can use a wide variety of feedstocks.

Brazil, he added, is an ideal place for ethanol for a number of reasons. The country has promoted ethanol as a fuel since the 1970s and there is a healthy supply of E85 cars and stations. More important, the country has long growing season and lots of land.

In the U.S., farmers growing crops for ethanol are getting 15 bone dry tons of feedstock per acre and are approaching 20 tons. In Brazil, some farmers are getting 20 to 30 bone dry tons per acre.

Zeachem says that its process – which combines biological and thermochemical processes –will allow it to squeeze 135 gallons of fuel from a bone dry ton of vegetable matter. Most other cellulosic makers wallow around the 100-gallon mark.

Zeachem's process can get five times the amount of fuel from a ton as corn ethanol, Imbler added. If fuel car efficiency were doubled tomorrow, and Zeachem's process were swapped in for corn ethanol, it could provide 30 percent of the transportation fuel in the U.S. without recruiting additional farmland for biofuels. (Again, this is his claim. Like all biofuel makers, Zeachem still needs to prove its processes outside the lab.)

The company's starter organism can be found naturally in the guts of termites and is not genetically modified. The bug is not a yeast that ferments sugars from the wood. Yeast aren't very efficient and give off carbon dioxide. The organisms cost $225 for a few grams.

The company raised $34 million in a second round of funding in January and right now it working the kinks out of its process. It plans to build a commercial scale plant this year and sell fuel and other products next year

Clean Energy Needs $515B per Year

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require about three times 2008's record-level investment in green energy every year until 2030, The World Economic Forum and New Energy Finance say in a report released Thursday at Davos.

Global clean energy investment has grown from about $30 billion to about $150 billion over the past four years. But the world will need to nearly quadruple that level of investment every year from now until 2030 if it hopes to avoid the worse effects of human-caused climate change.

That's the daunting task set out in a report from the World Economic Forum and New Energy Finance released Thursday at the forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Getting there will require immediate action by governments to push private investors, the report said.

The report's $515 billion-per-year figure is aimed at reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to 450 parts per million by 2030 – a goal that would force a 60-pecent reduction in emissions growth under a "business as usual" scenario. It's slightly higher than the $500 billion per year set out by the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook report last year.

"The good news is that the process of transition and the associated surge in investment have already begun," the report stated.

Last year's global investment of $142 billion – down slightly from 2007's record $148.4 billion -- still represented enough clean energy and energy efficiency projects to account for about 10 percent of the world's spending on energy, the report said.

Clean electricity generation – which excludes biofuels from the mix – added up to 42 gigawatts in 2007, nearly a quarter of the 190 gigawatts of capacity added worldwide, the report said.

The report didn't pick favorites when it comes to clean energy, saying that wind power, solar power, waste-to-energy projects, geothermal power and biofuels both from food and non-food sources would have to play a role.

"The shift to a low-carbon energy system cannot be achieved simply through the addition of new sources of renewable energy," the report stated. "It will also be necessary to make wholesale changes in the way energy is distributed, stored and consumed."

That includes investments in more efficient generation, distribution and use of power. A report McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that $170 billion in energy efficiency investment opportunities could yield returns of 17 percent or more.

Investments in "smart grid" projects will play a part in that push, the report said (see Smart Grid Backers Push Investment for Job Growth). Making electricity distribution grids more energy efficient by building two-way communications between utilities and power users will require a startling $8.6 trillion, New Energy Finance estimates – about three-fourths of that just to repair and replace aging portions of existing distribution grids (see EPRI Plugs Smart Grid for Energy Savings).

Bringing down the cost of storing large amounts of power – now estimated at about $50 to $180 per megawatt-hour, the report said – is another key to a cleaner energy future.

And because fossil fuels, including coal, will no doubt continue to play a major role in the world's power generation for decades to come, finding cost-effective technologies to capture and store carbon emissions – now being done only at pilot scales around the world – will also be critical.

The report's authors did say that they expect the world's major countries to set prices for greenhouse-gas emissions in the coming years. But "carbon prices along, however, will not be high enough – at least for the next few decades – to prompt a large-scale roll-out of renewable energy, nor will they be sufficient to promote carbon capture and sequestration," the report said.

Valuations for clean energy businesses dropped nearly 70 percent through 2008, and debt and equity financing for large-scale clean power projects has declined dramatically since mid-2008, the report said (see Wall Street Feeling Downbeat on Solar and Tax Credit Fix for Solar in the Works).

That means that governments will have to find ways to stimulate increased investment in the midst of a global economic downturn, the report said.

The stimulus package now working its way through Congress does contain billions in incentives for clean energy, energy efficiency, smart grid and other items. But the report called for longer-term policy changes, including a big push for governments to buy renewable energy and put energy efficiency standards into place.

The Army's Remote Controlled Beetle

Cyborg beetle: Shown here is a giant flower beetle carrying a microprocessor, radio receiver, and microbattery and implanted with several electrodes. To control the insect’s flight, scientists wirelessly deliver signals to the payload, which sends electrical signals through the electrode to the brain and flight muscles.
Credit: Michel Maharbiz
video Watch controlled flights of the beetle.

A giant flower beetle with implanted electrodes and a radio receiver on its back can be wirelessly controlled, according to research presented this week. Scientists at the University of California developed a tiny rig that receives control signals from a nearby computer. Electrical signals delivered via the electrodes command the insect to take off, turn left or right, or hover in midflight. The research, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), could one day be used for surveillance purposes or for search-and-rescue missions.

Beetles and other flying insects are masters of flight control, integrating sensory feedback from the visual system and other senses to navigate and maintain stable flight, all the while using little energy. Rather than trying to re-create these systems from scratch, Michel Maharbiz and his colleagues aim to take advantage of the beetle's natural abilities by melding insect and machine. His group has previously created cyborg beetles, including ones that have been implanted with electronic components as pupae. But the current research, presented at the IEEE MEMS in Italy, is the first demonstration of a wireless beetle system.

The beetle's payload consists of an off-the-shelf microprocessor, a radio receiver, and a battery attached to a custom-printed circuit board, along with six electrodes implanted into the animals' optic lobes and flight muscles. Flight commands are wirelessly sent to the beetle via a radio-frequency transmitter that's controlled by a nearby laptop. Oscillating electrical pulses delivered to the beetle's optic lobes trigger takeoff, while a single short pulse ceases flight. Signals sent to the left or right basilar flight muscles make the animal turn right or left, respectively.

Most previous research in controlling insect flight has focused on moths. But beetles have certain advantages. The giant flower beetle's size--it ranges in weight from four to ten grams and is four to eight centimeters long--means that it can carry relatively heavy payloads. To be used for search-and-rescue missions, for example, the insect would need to carry a small camera and heat sensor.

In addition, the beetle's flight can be controlled relatively simply. A single signal sent to the wing muscles triggers the action, and the beetle takes care of the rest. "That allows the normal function to control the flapping of the wings," says Jay Keasling, who was not involved in the beetle research but who collaborates with Maharbiz. Minimal signaling conserves the battery, extending the life of the implant. Moths, on the other hand, require a stream of electrical signals in order to keep flying.

The research has been driven in large part by advances in the microelectronics industry, with miniaturization of microprocessors and batteries.

By Emily Singer

New Carbon Nanomaterial

A simple chemical trick changes graphene into a compound with different electronic properties.

Versatile graphene: When a highly conductive graphene sheet is exposed to hydrogen atoms (white), they attach to the carbon atoms (black), transforming the material into graphane, an insulator. This is the first evidence that graphene’s properties can be manipulated chemically.
Credit: P. Huey/Science

Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like structure, has captured worldwide interest because of its attractive electronic properties. Now, by adding hydrogen to graphene, researchers at the University of Manchester, U.K., have made a new material that could prove useful for hydrogen storage and future carbon-based integrated circuits. While graphene is highly conductive, the new material, called graphane, is an insulator. The researchers can easily convert it back into conductive graphene by heating it to a high temperature.

Andre Geim, who led the research and first discovered the nanomaterial in 2004 with Kostya Novoselov, says that the findings suggest that graphene could be used as a base for making entirely new compounds. The hydrogenated compound graphane had been theoretically predicted before, but no one had attempted to create it. "What's important is that you can make another compound of [graphene] and can chemically tune its electronic properties to what you want so easily," Geim says.

Adding hydrogen to graphene is just one possibility. Using other chemicals could yield materials with even more appealing properties, such as a semiconductor. "Hydrogenation may not be the end of the exploration; it may be just the beginning," says Yu-Ming Lin, a nanotechnology researcher at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, in Yorkstown Heights, NY.

The latest findings are a step toward practical carbon-based integrated circuits, which could be used for low-power, ultrafast logic processors of the future. The findings also open up the possibility of using graphene for hydrogen storage in fuel cells. "Graphene is the ultimate surface because it doesn't have any bulk--only two faces," Geim says. This large surface area would make an excellent high-density storage material.

As described in Science, the researchers make graphane by exposing graphene pieces to hydrogen plasma--a mixture of hydrogen ions and electrons. Hydrogen atoms attach to each carbon atom in graphene, creating the new compound. Heating the piece to 450 °C for 24 hours reverts it back to the original state. Geim says that the researchers did not expect to be able to make the new substance so easily.

One of graphene's promises for electronics is that it can transport electrons very quickly. Transistors made from graphene could run hundreds of times faster than today's silicon transistors while consuming less power. Researchers are making progress toward such ultrahigh-radio-frequency transistors. But combining the transistors into circuits is a challenge because graphene is not an ideal semiconductor like silicon. Silicon transistors can be switched on and off between two different states of conductivity. Graphene, however, continues to conduct electrons in its off state. Circuits made from such transistors would be dysfunctional and waste a lot of energy.

One way to improve the on-off ratio in graphene transistors and bring them on par with those made of silicon is to cut the carbon sheet into narrow ribbons less than 100 nanometers wide. But making consistently good-quality ribbons is difficult.

Altering the material chemically may be an easier way to tailor its electronic properties and get the properties sought, Geim says. And that means that researchers could fabricate graphene circuits with nanoscale transistors that are smaller and faster than those made from silicon. "Imagine a wafer made entirely of graphene, which is highly conductive," he says. "[You can] modify specific places on the wafer to make it semiconducting and make transistors at those places." Areas between the transistors could be converted into insulating graphane, in order to isolate the transistors from each other.

The new work is just a preliminary first step. The researchers still need to thoroughly test the electronic and mechanical properties of graphane. Converting the material into a decent semiconductor might take a lot more chemical tinkering.

Besides, graphene researchers face one big challenge before they can do anything practical: coming up with an easy way to make large pieces of good-quality material in sufficient quantities. "For many applications, one needs a significant amount of material," says Hannes Schniepp, who studies graphene at the College of William and Mary. "And that's yet to be demonstrated for graphene or graphane."

By Prachi Patel-Predd

Microsoft Searches for Group Advantage

Credit: Technology Review

As part of its efforts to better compete with Google, Microsoft is plumbing the connections between searchers and their contacts to produce better results.

Microsoft researchers are exploring whether using data from several members of a social group--a technique that the company calls "groupization"--can improve search results. Their initial findings, based on experiments involving around 100 participating Microsoft employees, suggest that tapping into different types of groups could produce significantly better search results.

The team has developed an algorithm that, on average, pinpoints at least one search result for all members of a group that they judge to be better than the results returned using conventional algorithms. The results will be presented at the Web Search and Data Mining Conference in Barcelona in mid-February.

The Microsoft team believes that the approach could help the company overcome an industry-wide plateau in the quality of search results. "Today, search engines are really challenged and are sort of at the cusp of having to know individuals better," says Jaime Teevan, a computer scientist at Microsoft Research and lead author of the paper. "This [research] has the opportunity to enrich that."

The new research is part of Microsoft's efforts to erode Google's massive lead in search. Google currently attracts 63 percent of all searches, according to a 2008 survey by consumer-analysis firm Nielsen, far outpacing both Yahoo's 17 percent share and Microsoft's 10 percent share. Last year, Microsoft attempted to increase its share by acquiring Yahoo, but its initial advances were rejected. Yahoo later wanted to return to the bargaining table, but for the time being, Microsoft is focusing on increasing its audience by enhancing its own search offering.

With an eye on refining search results, Teevan and her colleagues--Meredith Morris and Steve Bush--looked at the way that people with similar interests or attributes search for information. The researchers grouped people using explicit factors, such as their age, gender, participation in certain mailing lists, and job function. In some cases, implicit groups--such as people who appeared to be conducting the same task or appeared to have the same interest--were inferred. The researchers acknowledged that gathering such data in the real world could be tricky. But it could perhaps be collected through registration, by caching previous searches or by tapping into social-networking software.

The Microsoft team found that groups defined by demographics such as age and location have little in common for most searches. However, groups of people with similar interests tend to rank similar search terms highly. The researchers also found that, while people believe that they phrase their queries in similar ways, the idiosyncrasies of search terms vary tremendously.

When asked to identify the pros and cons of telecommuting, for example, one searcher searched for "telecommuting," while others queried "working at home cost benefit" and "economic comparison telecommuting versus office." Knowing that these people have a shared interest could mean better results, Teevan says. "I don't talk about things the same way that you talk about things," she says. "And by using those different ways, [Microsoft is] more likely to find a page where someone talks about something in their own way."

Even if tapping into social groups improves search results, Microsoft will have to significantly improve its search service or introduce major new features to win over Google's loyal followers, says Andrew Frank, research vice president with business-intelligence firm Gartner's media group. "I think that the search category has been so successful for Google, and their dominance is so extreme, that it is hard to imagine a specific tactic that could be a silver bullet to change the trajectory of things," he says. "It will take a lot of effort and a lot of different things to change the overall picture of search."

Efforts to compare the quality of search results from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have found that about half of people still prefer Google--a smaller number than Google's actual market share. The difference is the attraction of Google's brand, Frank says. "You have to kind of change the game with search," he says. "It is almost impossible to get people to switch on a large scale just on a feature-function comparison."

In 2008, Google kicked off an experiment in which it allowed users to change the look of their search results, mapping them or placing them on a timeline. Early this year, the company added ability function that lets users reorder their search results through a service called SearchWiki. Yahoo has expanded its research-and-development efforts to try to match its rival's efforts.

Microsoft's Teevan believes, however, that there's still plenty of room for improvement. "Search is a really huge activity on the Web, but right now, we only have a single search tool--the search box--and a list of results," she says. "Groups can teach us a lot."

By Robert Lemos

"Perfectly Accurate" Voice recognition Phone too secret to See says BBC


"It's a secret world, most of which we can't film, and it operates from an industrial estate in Hereford."

So begins the BBC's coverage of the "The world's first fully accurate voice recognition system for mobile phones", built by a I A technology, company which employs just 40 people and normally supplies ejector seats to the military.

Is your snake-oil sense a-tinglin'? It should be. This video further charts the descent of the Beeb from an internationally respected and neutral reporting machine into a populist tabloid of a TV company.

The phone is called the Zumba, and comes in two parts: a giant, flat plastic ear and a rather retro looking box with a pie-chart shaped set of buttons on the front. Designer Dean McEvoy is dyslexic, and so designed the phone to be used without any typing or reading, ever. Sadly, the handset is too secret to even demonstrate. Or possibly, too not-working to show.

More: The phone is a "cloud" phone. All the heavy lifting is done on the company Web site, along with storage of your address book and presumably text messages. This site is apparently "100% secure", a claim we have heard more than once before. As McEvoy points out though, this does have the advantage of making the handset a dumb terminal -- if lost it's nothing more than a brick, free of personal information. Not that anyone would ever steal such an ugly box.

So what does the phone do? It appears that some super secret sauce lets you touch a single button on the earpiece and then speak. Your intentions are recognized and a text message is send, transcribed from your own spoken words. No mention is made of actual calls, but we'd think that this was just an omission from the film.

Do take a look at the video (non-embeddable -- linked below). McEvoy has the same look of desperate enthusiasm we saw in Sean McCarthy, back at our last snakeoil extravaganza, the Steorn Orbo perpetual motion machine. Maybe these guys should get together and make a hands-free, automatic phone that never needs charging? I'd buy that. You know, if it didn't disappear into obscurity after the first, doe-eyed, non-questioning media frenzy.

Glimpse at 'top-secret' phone [BBC]

Safety regulations Could Kill handmade Toy Industry

This $10,000 crayon set is for sale on ETSY to make a point. Small artisan toymakers and those who support their work are worried about their ability to stay in business after Feb. 10, when the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act takes effect. It requires that every toy intended for children under the age of 12 be tested for lead and phthalates.


For another absurd example and some good perspective on this issue, check out Dale Dougherty's recent column on The $4,000 Rattle. Dale is the publisher of Make and Craft magazines and is well aware of the problems this legislation will cause for many of the makers out there.

As written, CPSIA is going to have a chilling effect on the handmade toy industry. The motivation behind this law is clearly good: We all sat in horror as we learned about lead paint in toddler's toys, and other toxins finding their way into many items we bought for our children.

But surely common sense can prevail. CPSIA is heavyhanded. Lawmakers should be able to figure out some modifications or exemptions from the costly testing regulations that won't put domestic handmade toymakers out of business. It seems clear that where the regulations might make sense for a multi-national conglomerate, they just aren't going to work for the small, do-it-yourself cottage industries. Surely we don't want to punish the little guy making homemade wood toys in his garage because Chinese factories are using unsafe materials in mass production.

Without modifications, CPSIA will stifle a segment of society I really believe we should be encouraging -- those who are out there making things. For more information on this issue and to learn what you can do to help, check out the Handmade Toy Alliance and the National Bankruptcy Day site.

For more, see also this post in an ongoing series about CPSIA at our own Jeremiah McNichols' website, Z-Recommends.

Update: While I focused on toymakers in my post, several people have rightly pointed out in the comments that this law is much broader than that. CPSIA impacts any products made for children, including clothing, school supplies and many other non-toy items.

Tech Guide for the Newly Jobless

Tech Support is Here!: iStockphoto

Been laid off? Sacked? Canned? Made redundant? Welcome to the new economy! Now that you’ve parted ways with regular pay, it’s time to make a few lifestyle tweaks to help keep your head bobbing above the poverty line. First of all, don’t worry a thing about your monthly health insurance payment—that nut will disappear all by itself when your coverage runs out. I’m talking about your tech habits and what you need to know while riding out this exile from the working world. As a gadget buff who has clocked some serious time “in between jobs” myself, I offer up this checklist of the bad tech to avoid and the good tech to embrace as you ease into your new situation.

Cable TV: Bad
Ditch it. There’s no sense in paying $50 a month when you can score network and cable TV for free on Hulu, Joost, YouTube and the official network sites. Or, if the DTV transition does actually happen in a few weeks, pull your boob tube down from the ether.

Microwave Oven: Good
Say goodbye to restaurant dining and say hello to the Gorton’s Fisherman.

Netflix: Bad
Stop shelling out upwards of $16.99 per month for unlimited entertainment and trade it in for a library card. Did you know that most branches rent DVDs (for free, of course)? Just prepare to be comfortable with the fact that On the Waterfront is still considered a new release.

eBay: Bad
The quickest way to drain a 401k? Getting hooked on purchasing pieces of toast that look like Maddox Jolie-Pitt.

As-Seen-On-TV fitness gadgets: Good
Whether it’s the Ab Roller, Ab Rocket, Ab Coaster, Ab-Energizer, AbTronic or 6-Second Abs, what these at home fitness trinkets all have in common, debatable quality aside, is that they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than a monthly gym membership.

Xbox Live: Bad
Want to play with others? Join a pickup basketball league. They’re free.

iTunes and satellite radio: Bad
Eating, yes. But, you should never have to go without music. Of course, you shouldn’t steal it either, and there’s no reason to with the quality, selection and 100-percent freeness of what’s streamable from sites like and Pandora.

Inkjet refill kits: Good
Some inkjet manufacturers have gone to court to try and stop you from refilling your own printer juice using one the many at-home syringe kits that are still available online. Now, why would they do that? Because rolling your own is the equivalent of paying about $1 per cartridge, compared to $40 from the manufacturer.

Facebook: Bad
Some experts will tell you that Facebook is great when you’re unemployed because it’s a quick and easy way to network. Wrong. Without any responsibilities to keep you otherwise distracted, you’ll be updating your status message, poking people and tagging photos so often that your friends will start loathing you.

Renewable energy: Good
Your cell phone charger is eating up juice even when your phone isn’t plugged into it. Why plug it in ever? Save some cash and a little piece of the Earth with a hand-crank or solar charger.

Video games: Bad
Don’t you have more important things to do, like filing for unemployment? Besides, “I rule at Madden” isn’t exactly an impressive resume bullet.

Tumblr: Good
Start a blog! It’s a cheap, productive hobby. And, who knows? Maybe you’ll become famous.

Industry news sites: Bad
If you’re unfortunate enough to have chosen a career in the media, you should avoid sites like Mediabistro and Gawker at all costs. Their daily announcements of layoffs and publication obits really aren’t the inspiration to keep on living that you’re going to need each and every morning.

Want the latest news o

Harvesting Energy from Humans

The next big thing in alternative energy: your body. Wasted energy from your movements may not be enough to power your house, but it will be charging your cellphone and more within the next decade

Knee Generator: Energy output: 7 watts
The Bionic Energy Harvester can produce enough power from a one-minute walk to juice a cell phone for 30 minutes. The generator [red] sits on your knee and gathers energy toward the end of your step, when your leg begins to brake.
Greg Ehlers/SFU [inset: Claus Lunau]

The human body contains enormous quantities of energy. In fact, the average adult has as much energy stored in fat as a one-ton battery. That energy fuels our everyday activities, but what if those actions could in turn run the electronic devices we rely on? Today, innovators around the world are banking on our potential to do just that.

Movement produces kinetic energy, which can be converted into power. In the past, devices that turned human kinetic energy into electricity, such as hand-cranked radios, computers and flashlights, involved a person’s full participation. But a growing field is tapping into our energy without our even noticing it.

Consider, for example, a health club. With every step you take on a treadmill and with every bicep curl, you turn surplus calories into motion that could drive a generator and produce electricity. The energy from one person’s workout may not be much, but 100 people could contribute significantly to a facility’s power needs.

That’s the idea behind the Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon, where machines like stationary bikes harvest energy during workouts. Pedaling turns a generator, producing electricity that helps to power the building. For now, body energy supplies only a small fraction of the gym’s needs, but the amount should increase as more machines are adapted. “By being extremely energy-efficient and combining human power, solar and someday wind, I believe we’ll be able to be net-zero for electricity sometime this year,” says the gym’s owner, Adam Boesel. His bikes, by the way, aren’t the first to put pedal power to work. In some parts of the world, cyclists have been powering safety lights for years with devices called bicycle dynamos, which use a generator to create alternating current with every turn of the wheels.

Dance clubs are also getting in on the action. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s new Club WATT has a floor that harnesses the energy created by the dancers’ steps. Designed by a Dutch company called the Sustainable Dance Club, the floor is based on the piezoelectric effect, in which certain materials produce an electric current when compressed or bent. (The most common example is a cigarette lighter, in which a hammer causes a spark to be emitted when it strikes a piezoelectric crystal.) As clubgoers dance, the floor is compressed by less than half an inch. It makes contact with the piezoelectric material under it and generates anywhere from two to 20 watts of electricity, depending on the impact of the patrons’ feet. For now, it’s just enough to power LED lights in the floor, but in the future, more output is expected from newer technology. In London, Surya, another new eco-nightclub, uses the same principle for its dance floor, which the owners hope will one day generate 60 percent of the club’s electricity.

Gadget Power

Beyond body-powered gyms and dance clubs, ideas are also in the works to provide electricity for more ordinary, useful things. Researchers are creating ways to power small mobile devices like cellphones, MP3 players and laptops when there is no access to conventional energy sources.

Backpack : Energy output: 20 watts
Inventor Larry Rome demonstrates the Lightning Pack, which harvests the energy that is produced as the bag bounces during walking.
University of Pennsylvania
Max Donelan of the Locomotion Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, in collaboration with American and Canadian researchers, is developing an electromagnetic generator fitted to a standard knee brace. The prototype, which Donelan unveiled last February, turns a one-minute walk into enough current for a half-hour cellphone conversation.

The knee generator uses sophisticated electronics to ensure that it grabs only excess energy. A computer measures the angle of the knee during every step to determine when to engage and disengage the generator. In the course of an ordinary stride, we use muscle energy both to accelerate the leg forward in an arc and then to brake its downward motion. The generator kicks in only during the swing phase of a footstep when the muscles are already braking, so it doesn’t take power away from your step and slow you down. The electricity then flows through a wire to charge or power a battery or device.

At more than three pounds, the generator, called the Bionic Energy Harvester, is cumbersome. But thanks to lighter gears and a framework made of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber, the latest model, which is expected in the next year or so, should weigh closer to one pound. A microcomputer will replace a standalone computer that is wired to the unit in the current prototype.

Such a device has many possible uses. The Canadian military is partially funding Donelan’s research because soldiers carry as many as 30 pounds of batteries for communications and navigation equipment—a load that could be significantly lightened by an alternative energy source. Public-safety workers such as firefighters and police could also use the technology to power handheld equipment during emergencies. In the future, artificial limbs that require batteries may instead be designed with Donelan’s technology. And next-generation devices could run gadgets like cellphones, global positioning systems, iPods and digital cameras. This could be particularly useful for hikers and mountain climbers, who spend much of their time away from power sources.

Other generators in development use the same electromagnetic principle as the Bionic Energy Harvester. For instance, Larry Rome of the University of Pennsylvania has created the Lightning Pack, a backpack that captures energy from the natural up-and-down movement of your hips. As you walk, a bag bounces on a spring, which connects through gears to an electrical generator. Wires carry the electricity to your batteries or gadgets. The output is impressive: 20 watts, enough for nearly all portable devices, Rome says. But the bag is impractical for most people because it needs to weigh 80 pounds to generate 20 watts. (The heavier the load, the more mass that oscillates up and down, and the greater the kinetic energy potential.) The U.S. Marine Corps, however, is interested and has commissioned a pack for soldiers.

Multitasking Clothing

A far cry from an 80-pound backpack, energy harvesters the size of a thread are being developed by Zhong Lin Wang and two colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology. These mini-generators can be woven into T-shirts or other clothing and will collect energy from the body’s smallest movements, piping electricity to mobile devices.

Microfibers: Future energy output: 80 milliwatts per 11 square feet
Zhong Lin Wang holds his prototype microfiber nanogenerator. Threads composed of the synthetic material can be woven into garments that will generate electricity from the wearer’s movements.
Gary W. Meek/ Georgia Institute of Technology
Wang’s generators use piezoelectricity on a small scale. For the prototype, he grew zinc-oxide crystals on yarnlike Kevlar fibers. The crystals jut out on nanowires like thousands of small bristles and, when rubbed against each other, they bend and create electricity. In the prototype, two centimeter-long fibers produced 16 picowatts, or 16 trillionths of a watt. It’s a minuscule amount of electricity, but the output grows as more fibers are added. The researchers predict that clothing with these fibers could generate up to 80 milliwatts of electricity per 11 square feet of fabric, which is almost enough to power a cellphone or other mobile electronic device.

Before we see garments that generate electricity—which could happen in about five years—Wang and his colleagues must overcome several challenges. The biggest problem is that these nanofibers can’t get wet. A lining that zips out when laundering the garment could be the solution, and Wang is also exploring the possibility of waterproof nanofibers.

His next goal is to make the fibers more efficient. To this end, he is experimenting with different kinds of polymers and seeking better methods of combining the materials and collecting the electric charge. But even if the nanofibers don’t become much more efficient, they might still be able to power gadgets entirely by body movement. Electronic devices continue to get smaller, requiring less power, and higher-capacity batteries will store the energy that is accumulated over a longer period of time—bringing us that much closer to an era when our movements are no longer wasted.

Soon, we might not even have to consciously move to create power. Wang is working on a polymer film that would surround his power-generating fibers and allow them to be implanted into our bodies. There they would harvest kinetic energy from the steady dilation and contraction of blood vessels, providing a source of electricity for pacemakers, insulin pumps and other medical devices—making for a truly powerful breakthrough.