Big Ideas for a Small Planet.

The Sundance Channel has a show called “Big Ideas for a Small Planet.” Awhile back they interviewed me for that show, and now it appears that the episode — which is about “green gadgets” — is out.

It’s a $2 purchase in iTunes. It seems that they also put me in the free, 30-second preview that you can view in iTunes without actually purchasing the show. I’m saying something serious like “you never know where the next big idea is going to come from, so something that seems wacky today might turn into a really effective energy source.” That’s right after they show a person in a butterfly costume hopping along a series of electricity-generating tiles.

Maybe I have a future as a straight man?

Here’s the link to get the episode in iTunes: Big Ideas for a Small Planet – Gadgets

Big Ideas for a Small Planet.

First Look: iPhone 3G Fires on (Almost) Every Cylinder


It’s not the groundbreaking, industry-changing event that the original iPhone was. But the iPhone 3G is a worthy upgrade to Apple’s smartphone, and fixes a few flaws that kept many people from buying the first version.

The addition of fast 3G wireless data, GPS and a more flexible, extensible operating system mean the iPhone is now entirely competitive with almost every other smartphone on the market. And its new, lower purchase price will remove the final obstacle to purchase for many people. In short, this phone is about to become very, very popular, as it deserves to be.

Physically, the phone is nearly identical to the previous generation. It measures 2.4 x 4.5 x 0.4 inches, and weighs 4.8 ounces, making it just 0.1 inch wider and 0.3 ounces lighter than the iPhone 1.0. It feels substantially thinner, thanks to tapered edges, which make it sit more comfortably in the hand. Instead of a silver aluminum back, the new iPhone has a plastic backing, available in either glossy black or shiny, iMac white. The screen and 2-megapixel camera are identical to those in the older iPhone, but the external speakers are much improved. Call quality was noticeably clearer in our initial tests.

App Store

The most innovative and compelling feature of the new iPhone has nothing to do with the hardware — it’s a software upgrade. In fact, this upgrade is available for free to current iPhone owners (and as a $10 software upgrade for iPod Touch owners). The App Store contained within the iPhone 2.0 operating system transforms the iPhone/iPod Touch from mere devices into a full-blown platform, massively multiplying their usefulness by providing a wide array of new applications. There are more than 550 apps available in the App Store so far (although more than 100 appear to be public-domain e-books), ranging from useful toys and productivity apps to iPhone games to apps for scientists and science lovers. And Apple has really nailed the customer experience here. Browsing, purchasing and downloading mobile software has never been easier.

Photos: Jonathan Snyder/


Fast Data and GPS

One of the biggest shortcomings of the iPhone’s first-generation model was its reliance on AT&T’s slow EDGE data network. The new 3G data support means that the iPhone can download data 2-3 times faster than the old model. Of course, it still has WiFi support, and based on early reviews, you may want to use WiFi whenever it’s possible, because 3G usage will drain the iPhone’s batteries quickly.

It’s probably not a must-have feature for most users, but the addition of a GPS receiver is a welcome enhancement. The iPhone OS can now use a combination of GPS data and triangulation from WiFi hotspots and cell-tower locations to establish its location. This feature has worked well in our testing so far, and we expect its usefulness to expand as an increasing number of applications start to take advantage of it.

Sign Up and Activation Problems

Thanks in part to heavy demand and insufficient capacity, the phone’s launch today did not go smoothly. The iPhone went on sale in dozens of countries worldwide today, and in some cases, there were distribution problems. AT&T’s and Apple’s servers both suffered from heavy traffic loads, preventing many customers from being able to begin using their phones (greatly irritating some users, and provoking mirth among others). We tried for several hours to activate our iPhone, only succeeding about 2 p.m. Pacific — five hours after we’d purchased the phone.

The problems seem to have cleared up now, however, and reports suggest that activation is proceeding much more quickly. Part of the activation process must be completed in an Apple or AT&T store, part of it can be done via iTunes. It lacks the innovative simplicity of the original iPhone’s hassle-free sign-up process, but on the whole, it’s a less onerous sign up than you’ll face in most cellphone stores.

Bottom Line

If you already have an iPhone (first generation) or an iPod Touch, this is not a necessary upgrade. Instead, upgrade the operating system via iTunes, and you’ll be able to take advantage of the App Store and all the software it contains.

But if you don’t have an iPhone, now is a very good time to buy one. The price cut is worth less than Apple’s ads would have you believe, since the $200 price ($300 for the 16GB version) is coupled with a two-year cellular service contract. In the U.S., AT&T’s iPhone 3G contract will cost $10 more than the old version did ($70 for a package with unlimited data usage and the minimum number of minutes, 450 per month), pretty much erasing any price difference.

But let’s put this in context: the handset and service pricing are extremely competitive with other smartphones (including a wide variety of iPhone-like iClones). While the iPhone still has some notable shortcomings — no replaceable battery, a mere 2 megapixels in the camera, no video recording capabilities — it is an impressively useful, well-thought-out device, and comes at a reasonable price.

Add in the growing array of software in the iTunes App Store, and you have a device that will get more useful, not less useful, with time. You can’t say that about most other phones.

Specs: Apple iPhone 3G
3G wireless data
2-megapixel camera
iPhone 2.0 OS
3.5-inch multi-touch LCD
320 x 480 pixel display

$200 (8GB) or $300 (16GB), with two-year AT&T contract (prices and carriers will vary in other countries)

Link: First Look: iPhone 3G Fires on (Almost) Every Cylinder

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

First Look: iPhone 3G Fires on (Almost) Every Cylinder

Nanotubes Hold Promise for Next-Generation Computing

Carbon nanotubes grown on silicon wafers go in all directions (right), whilenanotubes grown on crystalline quartz are much more orderly, mostly growingin straight rows (left).
Image: Stanford University Department of Electrical Engineering

Carbon nanotubes have been around for more than a decade, but so far they haven’t shown up anywhere outside of R&D labs and tennis racquets.

Now, two separate groups of researchers have recently published papers demonstrating advances in creating, sorting and organizing carbon nanotubes so they can be used in electronics.

Because they are so small and could potentially replace two of the basic components of modern microchips (conductors and semiconductors), nanotubes have continued to pique the interest of electronics researchers. And that interest continues to grow, especially as the current technology used to make chips for electronics begins to reach its physical limits.

The trouble is that, until recently, making nanotubes was a somewhat random affair: You’d mix the required ingredients, grow a batch of nanotubes, and then sort through the resulting batch to see what you got. Researchers had no effective way to grow exclusively metallic or exclusively semiconducting nanotubes, and even ordering the nanotubes in regular patterns was a challenge. That has made using nanotubes on an industrial scale impractical to the point of impossibility.

“An ant is incredibly strong for its size. But nobody uses ants to do useful work, because they all run around in different directions,” says Mike Mayberry, the director of components research for Intel. (Mayberry was not involved in the research.)

And so nanotubes have grown for the past 15 years — knotty and bent — since the single-walled variety were discovered in 1993 by IBM researcher Donald S. Bethune and NEC researcher Sumio Ijima. As molecular oddities, carbon nanotubes have always been fascinating. Each nanotube is made of a “sheet” of interlocked carbon atoms, rolled up into a single- or multi-walled cylinder. Although each cylinder is a single, narrow molecule no more than a nanometer (nm) or two in diameter, the molecules can grow up to several centimeters in length — or 30 million times their width. A human hair that long would stretch 1.5 miles.

Even better, these strange carbon molecules exhibit great physical strength because they’re held together by atomic bonds. They’ve also got unusual electrical properties: Depending on which way the sheets of carbon are rolled up, nanotubes are either metallic, making them good electrical conductors, or semiconducting, making them potentially useful components for the logic components of microchips.

A paper — presented last month at the VLSI Symposium by Nishant Patil, Albert Lin, Edward R. Myers, H.-S. Philip Wong and Subhasish Mitra, all of Stanford’s electrical engineering department — addresses the problem of getting the nanotubes straightened out so they could be put to work in chips.

To be useful in large-scale chip manufacturing, nanotube components will have to be integrated with existing silicon-based chips. Unfortunately, growing nanotubes on silicon wafers produce a disorderly mess. The authors tackled that problem by growing the nanotubes on crystalline quartz, where they grow in orderly rows, then transferring them to a silicon wafer.

“If you grow carbon nanotubes on silicon, you will see that the carbon nanotubes are really unruly, like a bowl of thin rice noodles,” says Mitra. “If you use a quartz wafer, the nanotubes are largely aligned with each other. They still have kinks and bends and so on, but they’re pretty good.”

Even if the nanotubes are reasonably straight, the problem of selectively creating semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes remains. Another paper, published last week in Science by Stanford and Samsung chemical engineers Melburne C. LeMieux, Mark Roberts, Soumendra Barman, Yong Wan Jin, Jong Min Kim and Zhenan Bao, reports that by changing the substrate on which the nanotubes are grown, manufacturers can control what kind of nanotubes form. Using a substrate of aminosilanes, the resulting nanotubes were almost entirely semiconducting, while substrates of aromatic compounds (such as phenyls) produced metallic nanotubes.

That’s a more effective way of getting the right kind of nanotube than previous techniques, which involved sorting nanotubes after they are made using electrical or magnetic fields — and which weren’t usable on a commercial scale.

Nanotubes might be coming on the scene just in time, as modern chipmaking technologies approach their physical limits. Current cutting-edge chip technology creates circuit elements that are 45nm wide, and the next-generation technology, expected in prototype form later this year, will be 32nm. (Smaller circuits are faster and also allow chipmakers to pack more components into a single chip, making processors more powerful and capable.) That’s getting pretty close to the limit of current technologies for two reasons: leakage and light.

As silicon-and-copper circuits get smaller, electricity leakage and heat dissipation become proportionally greater problems than they are with larger circuits. By contrast, a nanotube circuit could potentially be as small as 1 or 2nm, and it would be extremely efficient, even over comparatively long distances.

Also, the photolithography techniques used to etch microchip circuits are running into a physical barrier: The components are smaller than the wavelengths of the light used to etch them. Going smaller will require a completely different technology.

“Lithography is running out of steam,” notes Subhasish Mitra, a co-author of one of the nanotube papers.

While industry researchers welcomed the new papers, they cautioned that it will be quite awhile before nanotubes are used inside microchips.

“These techniques and others are all steps in the right direction. They’re good progress along the way,” says Mayberry.

In the meantime, however, nanotubes might find applications on a larger scale than the inside of a chip. For instance, Mayberry notes that Intel has done research into using nanotube-based wiring as the interconnecting wires between different sections of microchips, or even as part of a chip package’s cooling system.

Link: Nanotubes Hold Promise for Next-Generation Computing

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Nanotubes Hold Promise for Next-Generation Computing