New article in April Valley Business Front

There is an article in the current issue of the Valley Business Front that relates to a blog I posted a while back about a new roof vent technology that is designed to hold the roof down when the wind blows.  In fact, the higher the wind speed, the more holding force is generated.

No, wait, I didn’t post this before…but I meant to, so that counts, right?  Anyway, check it out.  There’s a cool photo of the inside of a wind tunnel, even if you don’t want to read the exceptionally well written article.  Actually, the photo is not that cool, since the inside of a wind tunnel is not really a spectacular place to take a photo.  In fact it’s a pretty boring place, at least until you turn the wind on, which obviously you can’t do while you are inside it installing equipment.  But still.

Read the article.  It will blow you away.  Hehehe…I crack myself up sometimes.

The article appears on pages 38-39 of the issue.   And don’t forget to visit all the sponsors of the Valley Business Front, so the sponsors will continue to purchase advertising and I can cash my tiny check for writing the article and buy my $2.99 value meal lunch at Wendy’s.

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Filed under Energy, propulsion, Sensing, software

Futurama!

When I was a kid, one of my least favorite things was to sit in the barber shop on a Saturday morning for what seemed like hours waiting my turn for a two-minute haircut.  My father didn’t allow any of those new-fangled haircuts where it actually looked like you had some hair.  No, sir, we got the standard, GI type of haircut where all your personality was left on the floor to be swept up later.

But, one good thing that came of this experience, aside from the presumed character-building aspect, was that I got to read issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics.  Even though these issues were worn and tattered from handling by the army of ten-year-old boys who frequented the establishment, and were in fact possibly older than any of us, it was fascinating to imagine the world we would live in as adults where lasers and robots and other mechanical and electrical marvels would make life much more interesting than it was at that time.  Of course, we had not discovered girls yet.

But all of us in that age bracket agreed, flying cars were going to be so cool, and what’s more, they should have been ready for market by the time we got our driver’s licenses.  Ohhhh, yeaaaah.

Unfortunately, the flying cars never came, even though one was featured later in a James Bond movie.  It was my first great life disappointment.  I mean the lack of flying cars, not the movie, although that, too, was a disappointment.

So, all these many years later, I have come to accept that visions of the future rarely match the actual future.  Sometimes the actual future turns out to be pretty cool anyway, but reality has a way of spoiling the dreams of preteen boys who possess, at last accounting, approximately 99% of the world’s total creativity.

But hold on, I may have found an actual example of how prophetic Popular Science truly was.  Take a look at this website that describes a concept for next-generation living.  It’s called the Lumenhaus and it’s Virginia Tech‘s entry into the Solar Decathlon competition.  It’s chock full of cool materials like aerogel panels, solar panels and anti-hurricane roof vents, and it thinks for itself!  It opens and closes panels to heat or cool as necessary, and it can be operated from an iPhone application.  Dude.

OK, so it looks pretty small, and it is.  But it’s just a concept house.  However, built into the concept is the idea of living more efficiently in less space by using technology and futuristic Star Trek social ideas.  Imagine a house that reconfigured the space for the temporary use to which it was being put.  You really have to take a look at the flash animations on the site, which was apparently designed by up-and-coming web advertising company Modea.  Not only is the house itself cool, I really love the website.  Like the house, the site is just what it needs to be.

So, even though I have still not totally given up on the flying cars, until they come along I can dream about the next generation house.

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Filed under Communications, Energy, Materials, Networks, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

High Tech for kids! (and the rest of us)

What sort of toys did you play with as a child?

I didn’t have video games – instead I had sports, like baseball, and…um…well, I guess baseball was the only organized sport I played.  But there were lots of kids in the neighborhood, and everybody had large back yards, so we played football, shot hoops on the neighbor’s driveway, rode our bicycles, and just generally had a lot of low-tech fun.

My now-grown son was heavily into video games that involved killing all sorts of bad guys with incredibly cool weaponry ranging from daggers to lasers to magic spells.  One day I was rummaging around through some old stuff, looking for of all things, my college diploma (I was trying to remind myself what subject my actual degree was in), and I found some of his old kindergarten papers.  Incredibly, on one paper where he was asked to list his favorite toy, he wrote “blocks”.

Ah, yes, toys that require imagination.  Down deep inside, we always go back to those.

Well, so did Kelly Harrigan, a 4th year industrial design student at Virginia Tech.  For a class assignment to “develop a creative product capable of commercialization“, she came up with a toy concept that is sure to fascinate children of any age.  It’s a set of dumbell-shaped pieces that have embedded magnets.  Here is a photo, stolen, er, I mean borrowed, from Kelly’s site.  Thanks Kelly.

How cool is that?  Magnets!  Kids love magnets, probably because they don’t understand the invisible forces they exert on each other.  In this case, the magnets are covered by wooden shapes that lend themselves to arrangement in all sorts of temporary shapes.  Check out Kelly’s Coroflot profile to see more, and learn about Kelly.  Also check out this story that was released when Kelly’s design was awarded a design patent.  Nice resume builder there, eh?

But most cool of all is that Kelly’s Ferra toy design won first place in a contest sponsored by Naef, the Swiss toymaker.  Their toys are really interesting, and Ferra looks like it would fit perfectly in their catalog.

What is the best thing about this high-tech, low-tech toy?  Well, for me, it’s that my video game master son can’t beat me at this game.

Ok, he is a graphic designer and artist, so probably he can beat me at this also.  But when most of my faculties have escaped me (possibly as soon as next month), I’ll still be able to have fun with something that has a law of nature built into it.

Oh, my degree was in Physics, as it turns out.  Who woulda thunk it?

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Death of the power grid?

Whoa, check out this story about the installation of apparently feasible fuel cell power for a significant customer:  Server for cleaner energy unveiled.

Actually, multiple customers, including Google, eBay, Bank of America, Staples, Coca-Cola and WalMart.  Seriously!  (Note:  even though I am an SEO whore, I refuse to link back to the websites of these companies, not that they would notice one way or the other.)

Fuel cells are not new, so what’s all the hubbub, bub?  Well, even though the technology has been making progress toward commercial goals (meaning lower cost), the equation has not been favorable for broad adoption.  But Bloom Energy, whose CEO K R Sridhar was featured on this week’s 60 Minutes, seems to have been able to convert their $400 million investment into a winning product.

One of the problems with large scale power generation is transmission losses.  Power generated in Virginia, for example, goes onto the grid and is distributed to the users from there.  Of course it works, but if the power could be generated on the site where it is to be consumed, at least the costs and losses associated with transmission lines could be eliminated.  And of course, we have been worried for years about attacks on our increasingly ‘smart’, and therefore vulnerable, grid.  On a hot summer day, a transformer going offline in Miami can take out part of the power system in New England.  It’s a carefully balanced beast that does not have nearly as much redundancy built in as should be required for such an important service.

Bloom Energy’s units are about the size of a car, and can be arranged in modules for easy increases in generation as demand increases.  Plus, they are much cleaner than, for example, coal-fired power plants, since they can utilize green fuels.

So, it looks like our power problems are solved, right?

Meh, I don’ t know.  After all, this is coming out of Silicon Valley, the same folks who brought you the dot-com bubble whose burst created an economic mess that is still being cleaned up ten years later.  As mentioned in the article, “the market will separate fact from fiction, and will prove claims versus reality”.

I hope it works.  Competitively priced electric power generated locally using green fuels and distributed without the need for landscape blighting high tension power lines cutting broad swaths across my forest covered mountains, has to be a good thing, right?

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Filed under Energy, fuel

When is technology a bad idea?

OK, I’m fully expecting to receive some flak about this post, but I’m going to write it anyway.

I remember a scene in the movie Jurassic Park where, after hearing the scientific explanation about how the dinosaurs were cloned and brought to life, Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by rakishly nerdy Jeff Goldblum) says something like, “Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

You know, technology is a lot like that.  Just look at nuclear fission.  The same technology that could give us almost unlimited, inexpensive electrical power, can also be turned on us in the form of nuclear weapons.  Perhaps more to the point, it can also give us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

I apply that same sort of caution to an otherwise laudable effort by Dr. Dennis Hong and his team to develop technology that would allow blind people to drive a car. You can read more about it here and here.  Dennis’ team is stepping up to the National Federation for the Blind‘s “Blind Driver Challenge“, sponsored by the Jernigan Institute.

I know.   That was my reaction at first, also.  Why in the world would we want blind people driving automobiles?  Sighted people have enough trouble.

So, now that I have that out  of my system, let’s talk about reality.  There is no doubt that Hong’s engineering team will come up with some amazing ways to augment automobile navigation and control.  But let’s face it, who will insure a blind driver?  See, (no pun intended), driving is one of those personal responsibility things.  If you hit somebody, it’s your fault.  Period.  The statistical tables are well understood for the insurance industry, which allows them to set rates based on likelihood of an accident for various population classes who drive.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the highest incidence of accidents is not reckless teenage boys with fast cars, as popular 1960s songs might lead you to believe.  Nope, it’s teenage GIRLS.  Not really a surprise, I suppose, is it?

Anyway, just imagine that Hong, or somebody, develops the technology to allow blind people to drive a car on the highway with everybody else.  And suppose some critical part of that technology fails, as technology is wont to do at the most inopportune moments.  And suppose this failure leads to an accident where, unfortunately, one or more people are killed.  Maybe even the blind person.

The lawyers will have a field day.  The blind driver’s family will sue the automaker and the people who developed the blind driving technology for misleading the blind driver into thinking it was safe to drive.  The families of anybody else involved in the accident will sue the blind driver, and probably all the people the blind driver sues as well.  Somebody will sue the regulatory agency that approved this fiasco.  Who knows where it might end?

Which is why I don’t think this technology will ever be used to enable blind people to driver cars on the highway.

BUT, it could have other purposes.  What would a foolproof blind driver system look like?  Well, it would navigate for you, locate obstacles for you, predict paths for you to avoid objects, and pretty much just take over the driving for you.

In fact, if such as system could work, we would all end up in a world where none of us would actually be driving our cars at all.  I mean, if it is that safe, then there would be a massive computer controlled road network with smart cars, no traffic jams, and pretty much no autonomy.

Might as well take a bus or a train….

So, what’s the end of this story?  Well, I think Hong’s work will actually lead to systems that make cars safer and more convenient for sighted drivers, not blind ones.  And while I completely sympathize with blind people and their limited autonomy in life, the usefulness of this technology to them will be limited to in-community, limited use roads such as within a retirement area.  And maybe that is enough.

Be sure to spend a few minutes browsing Hong’s research lab website, the ROMELA lab.  It’s full of very interesting and very, very creepy robotic things, including graduate students.

Hehe, just kidding.  The graduate students, while creepy like all graduate students, are not, in fact, robotic as far as I know.

But with Dennis, you can never be sure….

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Filed under Communications, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software

University research is a bargain for tech companies

Executive summary:  It’s a steal.  For you, I mean.

Many companies will crinkle up their noses, frown and then throw up on your shoes if you suggest they should work with a university research team to achieve their technology goals.  And, in many cases, your shoes would deserve to be soiled in this manner.  After all, there is a reason that good research faculty are teaching college classes instead of heading up research labs for private companies.  The academic life has its own pace, which is nowhere near fast enough for the typical technology based business.  I have personally managed a number of university collaborations over the years, and I have management-inflicted scars on my back to prove it.  But even though the interface to a university research team is difficult to control and synchronization of goals with business timelines is almost impossible, I still believe that university research is the best bargain your business will ever see, outside of bureaucratically distributed stimulus funds.

First, consider how much larger is the skill set of a well-endowed university research laboratory.  Generally there is a mix of seasoned senior research-managers and younger faculty, which really brings some R&D power to the problem.  In addition you get grad students feverishly working to earn their degrees, as well as apprentice post-docs trying to beef up their resumes using your project.

Most importantly, the cost of the research is a real bargain.  Not only do you get the benefit of years, sometimes decades of well-equipped labs, some containing one-of-a-kind tools developed specifically to study problems in your field, but you only have to pay a fraction of the actual cost of the work.

Think about it.  In a public university, the state budget underwrites a huge part of the research, not only by providing facilities, but by subsidizing the salaries of the folks working for you.

Let’s look at the Virginia budget (relevant tables for education spending are here).  The University of Virginia and its Medical School, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech together account for about $4 Billion of the State budget.  So, for example, if Virginia Tech, with about 1500 faculty, gets about $950M from the state, that equates to about $680k for each faculty member.  Of course, not all of that money goes directly to research faculty, but still, because the state underwrites the university operation to this degree, outside sponsors get a huge bargain compared to what it would have cost them to accomplish the same research results internally.

Even so, the perceived “relaxed pace” with which university research occurs is often at odds with product windows of opportunity in the commercial world.  Yes, that’s true, and it’s not going to change.  But it shouldn’t.  Businesses should view university based research as a long term strategy for obtaining leading edge technology for next generation products, not quick fixes for the failures of an internal R&D effort.  And while there are slackers within a university just like any other organization, the unbounded freedom to explore science and technology within the university environment can unleash extreme creativity, often leading to game-changing, transformational technology for the market.

One criticism often leveled at university technology transfer efforts is that the school “wants to own all the intellectual property developed with the sponsor’s money”.  Well, that’s sort of true, but there are some reasons.  Generally, the university requires faculty to assign all their rights as inventors to the school for management.  In exchange, the tech transfer office (TTO) returns a significant fraction of any license revenues back to the inventors.  So they could, for example, reap huge royalty payments from a pharmaceutical company for a drug they helped develop without having to work in a startup company.  The TTO protects and markets the inventions for the state and the inventor.  In the case of company sponsored research, the sponsor generally gets some sort of credit in the way of paid up options to negotiate exclusive license agreements, and possibly very favorable terms, in exchange for their portion of the funding.

It’s important for the company to understand that no matter how much funding they put into the project, the taxpayers of the state have also put in a significant amount, and expect a fair return.

But it’s still a bargain.  Partnering with a university results in the development of leading edge research at a fraction of the actual cost to the company.  Often, for the company, it can be the difference between being a market leader or an also-ran.

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Keeping the eggs in the omelette

I feel like a pincushion.  I’ve had so many pre-emptive shots this season to ward off flu and pneumonia and such that I am thinking I might as well go ahead and get a tattoo.

When I was younger, I laughed at the flu and never got a shot.  In fact I laughed at the people who ran around getting the shots in the fall, and called them all sorts of effeminate names.  But for the past few years the flu decided to remind me that I am not 25 years old any more, so now I get the shots.

When I can get them, that is.  There always seems to be a shortage of vaccine when I need the shot, and I can tell you one reason.  Eggs.

Yep, you need about 2 eggs to make a single dose of flu vaccine, and the vaccine itself generally doesn’t cover all the possible ways you might get the flu anyway.  Plus, it takes about six months to crank up the amount of production needed for the general population, so if something new and slightly unexpected comes along, it’s hard to get the vaccine to people in time.

Eggs are used to make vaccine?  Yup.  It’s the traditional method.  Eleven days after fertilization the embryos are injected with live virus, which then incubates inside the fluid sac until it is harvested.  Obviously not a wonderful experience for the embryo, I’m guessing.  So, that means that you need millions of fertilized eggs to make the product, and it all seems rather difficult and messy to me.  And slow, which means that some people, like about 36,000 per year, could die from the disease.

But, Dr. Paul Roberts of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is coming to the rescue.  Roberts has been experimenting with a different method of producing the vaccine, based on cell cultures.  His goal is to develop a faster way to produce vaccine which will also be more adaptable to changing mixes of flu variants that occur during a typical flu season.  To accomplish this, Roberts essentially makes the flu produce its own poison.

The way your body fights an invader, such as a flu virus, is to produce antibodies against it.  It’s sort of like tagging the invading cells with a little red flag, and then sending out other killer cells to wipe out anything with red flags.  Unfortunately, antibodies work best when they are very specific to a particular invader, but the flu doesn’t consist of just one flavor of threat.

Roberts is using new cell culture technology to coax infected cells to produce their own antidotes, so to speak.  He tags the envelope of the host cell containing the virus with proteins that will induce the body to make antibodies, and so when the virus emerges, or ‘buds’ from the host cell, it gets wrapped in the envelope, effectively painting itself with a big bullseye for the immune system.  The virus itself is killed and then it can be safely injected into the host (me, for example) where my own body will stimulate my immune system against it without my having to actually get the flu.  Later, when real flu bugs invade me because my office mate spent the last three days coughing and sneezing on me, I’ve already got my antibodies lying in ambush.

I love it when a plan comes together.

So, the point is that eventually this cell culture technique might replace the egg incubation technique, which means that vaccines could be produced more rapidly to address emerging health threats.

Plus, since you no longer need millions of eggs to produce vaccine, demand for eggs will go down, resulting in lower egg prices for consumers…well, we won’t go there.  I like to discuss topics that have predictable outcomes, like science.  Not economics.

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Filed under biotechnology, genetics, medical technology