Monthly Archives: September 2011

Princeton goes Open Access; arXiv is 10 years old

Open access to science research papers seems only right given that most Canadian research is publicly funded. (As I understand it most research worldwide is publicly funded.)

This week, Princeton University declared that their researchers’ work would be mostly open access (from the Sept. 28, 2011 news item on,

Prestigious US academic institution Princeton University has banned researchers from giving the copyright of scholarly articles to journal publishers, except in certain cases where a waiver may be granted.

Here’s a little more from Sunanda Creagh’s (based in Australia) Sept.28, 2011 posting on The Conversation blog,

The new rule is part of an Open Access policy aimed at broadening the reach of their scholarly work and encouraging publishers to adjust standard contracts that commonly require exclusive copyright as a condition of publication.

Universities pay millions of dollars a year for academic journal subscriptions. People without subscriptions, which can cost up to $25,000 a year for some journals or hundreds of dollars for a single issue, are often prevented from reading taxpayer funded research. Individual articles are also commonly locked behind pay walls.

Researchers and peer reviewers are not paid for their work but academic publishers have said such a business model is required to maintain quality.

This Sept. 29, 2011 article by James Chang for the Princetonian adds a few more details,

“In the interest of better disseminating the fruits of our scholarship to the world, we did not want to put it artificially behind a pay wall where much of the world won’t have access to it,” committee chair and computer science professor Andrew Appel ’81 said.

The policy passed the Faculty Advisory Committee on Policy with a unanimous vote, and the proposal was approved on Sept. 19 by the general faculty without any changes.

A major challenge for the committee, which included faculty members in both the sciences and humanities, was designing a policy that could comprehensively address the different cultures of publication found across different disciplines.

While science journals have generally adopted open-access into their business models, humanities publishers have not. In the committee, there was an initial worry that bypassing the scholarly peer-review process that journals facilitate, particularly in the humanities, could hurt the scholarly industry.

At the end, however, the committee said they felt that granting the University non-exclusive rights would not harm the publishing system and would, in fact, give the University leverage in contract negotiations.

That last comment about contract negotiations is quite interesting as it brings to mind the California boycott of the Nature journals last year when Nature made a bold attempt to raise subscription fees substantively (400%) after having given the University of California special deals for years (my June 15, 2010 posting).

Creagh’s posting features some responses from Australian academics such as Simon Marginson,

Having prestigious universities such as Princeton and Harvard fly the open access flag represented a step forward, said open access advocate Professor Simon Marginson from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

“The achievement of free knowledge flows, and installation of open access publishing on the web as the primary form of publishing rather than oligopolistic journal publishing subject to price barriers, now depends on whether this movement spreads further among the peak research and scholarly institutions,” he said.

“Essentially, this approach – if it becomes general – normalises an open access regime and offers authors the option of opting out of that regime. This is a large improvement on the present position whereby copyright restrictions and price barriers are normal and authors have to attempt to opt in to open access publishing, or risk prosecution by posting their work in breach of copyright.”

“The only interests that lose out under the Princeton proposal are the big journal publishers. Everyone else gains.”

Whether you view Princeton’s action as a negotiating ploy and/or a high minded attempt to give freer access to publicly funded research,  this certainly puts pressure on the business models that scholarly publishers follow.

arXiv, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is another open access initiative although it didn’t start that way. From the Sept. 28, 2011 news item on,

“I’ve heard a lot about how democratic the arXiv is,” Ginsparg [Paul Ginsparg, professor of physics and information science] said Sept. 23 in a talk commemorating the anniversary. People have, for example, praised the fact that the arXiv makes scientific papers easily available to scientists in developing countries where subscriptions to journals are not always affordable. “But what I was trying to do was set up a system that eliminated the hierarchy in my field,” he said. As a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “I was receiving preprints long before graduate students further down the food chain,” Ginsparg said. “When we have success we like to think it was because we worked harder, not just because we happened to have access.”

Bill Steele’s Sept. 27, 2011 article for Cornell Univesity’s ChronicleOnline notes,

One of the surprises, Ginsparg said, is that electronic publishing has not transformed the seemingly irrational scholarly publishing system in which researchers give their work to publishing houses from which their academic institutions buy it back by subscribing to journals. Scholarly publishing is still in transition, Ginsparg said, due to questions about how to fund electronic publication and how to maintain quality control. The arXiv has no peer-review process, although it does restrict submissions to those with scientific credentials.

But the lines of communication are definitely blurring. Ginsparg reported that a recent paper posted on the arXiv by Alexander Gaeta, Cornell professor of applied and engineering physics, was picked up by bloggers and spread out from there. The paper is to be published in the journal Nature and is still under a press embargo, but an article about it has appeared in the journal Science.

Interesting, eh? It seems that scholarly publishing need not disappear but there’s no question its business models are changing.

Scientists: freedom and responsibility

I have commented here about situations where scientists are constrained from speaking about their work (see this Sept. 16, 2010 posting, One more muzzle for Canadian government scientists). The other side of that equation is responsibility, i.e., with freedom comes responsibility. From the Sept.30, 2011 news item on,

“The balance between scientific freedom and responsibility is not always easy to get right, but awareness of its significance and of the value of ongoing dialogue must be maintained within the scientific community.” says Bengt Gustafsson, Chair of ICSU’s [International Council for Science Universality] Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science (CFRS). “By extending its consideration of the long-established Principle of the Universality to explicitly include responsibilities as well as freedoms, ICSU has emphasized that this balance is critical both for science and society.”

I believe this is the wording which has just been approved at the ICSU’s general assembly in Rome,

The free and responsible practice of science is fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental well-being. Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information, and other resources for research. It requires responsibility at all levels to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency, recognising its benefits and possible harms.

In advocating the free and responsible practice of science, ICSU promotes equitable opportunities for access to science and its benefits, and opposes discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age.

For anyone who’d like to investigate further, here’s the ICSU’s Freedom and Responsibility portal.

Cells and transistors

Analog/digital, is there a difference? After reading the latest from MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Research Laboratory Electronics (RLE), the answer turns out to be no, when it comes to transistors. From the Sept. 29, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

A transistor is basically a switch: When it’s on, it conducts electricity; when it’s off, it doesn’t. [emphases mine] In a computer chip, those two states represent 0s and 1s.

But in moving between its nonconductive and conductive states, a transistor passes through every state in between — slightly conductive, moderately conductive, fairly conductive — just as a car accelerating from zero to 60 passes through every speed in between. Because the transistors in a computer chip are intended to perform binary logic operations, they’re designed to make those transitional states undetectable. [emphases mine]

The MIT researchers will be discussing their work using analog transistors to increase the concentrations of two different proteins in cells. From the news item on Nanowerk,

At the Biomedical Circuits and Systems Conference in San Diego in November, Sarpeshkar [Rahul Sarpeshkar, associate professor of electrical engineering], research scientist Lorenzo Turicchia, postdoc Ramiz Daniel and graduate student Sung Sik Woo, all of RLE, will present a paper in which they use analog electronic circuits to model two different types of interactions between proteins and DNA in the cell. The circuits mimic the behaviors of the cell with remarkable accuracy, but perhaps more important, they do it with far fewer transistors than a digital model would require.

Here’s a graphic representation of transistors in a cell (downloaded from the MIT News Office page for this research,

Graphic: Christine Daniloff

This works seems to be signaling (pun noted) a change in how systems biology and synthetic biology researchers think about biological systems. From the Sept. 28, 2011 news item by Larry Hardesty for the MIT News Office,

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, two thriving new disciplines — synthetic biology and systems biology — have emerged from the observation that in some ways, the sequences of chemical reactions that lead to protein production in cells are a lot like electronic circuits. In general, researchers in both fields tend to analyze reactions in terms of binary oppositions: If a chemical is present, one thing happens; if the chemical is absent, a different thing happens.

But Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), thinks that’s the wrong approach. “The signals in cells are not ones or zeroes,” Sarpeshkar says. “That’s an overly simplified abstraction that is kind of a first, crude, useful approximation for what cells do. But everybody knows that’s really wrong.”

From what I understand of the synthetic biology and systems biology communities, this is a major change.

NanoTech Security Corp’s new shim and a few oddities about the company

The Sept. 29, 2011 news item on Nanowerk announces,

Nanotech Security Corp. has reached a major milestone in authentication and anti-counterfeiting security technology developed by replicating nano-scale structures similar to those found on the wings of the iridescent Morpho Butterfly.

Nanotech Security Corp. is pleased to announce its team of researchers have successfully created the world’s first master shim [Note: I was not able to access this site when I tried Sept. 29, 2011, 3:14 pm PST.], or master die, that manufacturers can use to reproduce nano-holes in a variety of materials – including banknotes – in large volumes quickly and cost-effectively without changing the manufacturing process.

Nanotech brings the next generation of authentication technology

“Proving that our technology can be re-created successfully with the use of a master shim was a crucial step in making it available for commercial use to our potential partners,” said Doug Blakeway, CEO and chairman of Nanotech Security Corp.

“This milestone makes our technology accessible and affordable to banknote manufacturers, while allowing them to maintain the highest level of security they require.”

I posted about NanoTech Security Corp earlier this year (January 17, 2011) when the research team who are affiliated with Simon Fraser University (SFU) were in the process of publicizing their work. This is exciting news and I hope do they well. At the same time, I am somewhat puzzled as there are a number of inconsistencies starting with the company’s age.

From the Nanotech Security Corp home page,

NANOTECH Security Corp. has a 20 year history
designing and selling security devices. Devices include
security threads for bank notes and high value documents, communication surveillance and intelligence gathering equipment for the International Defense and Law Enforcement markets.

The news item on Nanowerk states this,

With a rich history in law enforcement and security applications, Nanotech Security Corporation has embarked on a new venture bringing world class nanotechnology from Simon Fraser University to the authentication and anti-counterfeiting market.

Founded in 1985, Nanotech Security has evolved substantially, successfully implementing devices and technology in areas of criminal justice, infrared night-viewing, tracking security and forensics.

The company would be 26 years old if it were founded in 1985. The more digging I do the more confusing it gets. According to the information about NanoTech Security (NTS) Corp listed on the Toronto Stock Exhange’s Infoventure page, the company was incorporated in May 1984 (which would make it 27 years old). [ETA Oct. 3, 2011: It’s highly unlikely the company was called NanoTech Security Corp in 1984 or 1981. Was it called something else? There is no company history on the website to clarify.] NTS has two other companies as subsidiaries (?), Strategic Technologies (address and phone no. identical to NanoTech Security Corp’s listing on its website) and Tactical Technologies in Pennsylvania. [ETA Oct. 3, 2011: Tactical Technologies was formed in 1994]

The NTS website lists Tactical Technologies in its Products category (another oddity),

Tactical Technologies Inc., is a wholly owned subsidiary of NanoTech Security Corp.
Tactical is engaged in the design, manufacture and supply of sophisticated communications, surveillance, intelligence gathering and forensic equipment for the Law Enforcement and Defense Industries. Tactical works closely with its customer base and has pioneered many unique products and system solutions which surpass the needs of top security, investigative, enforcement, defense and offender detention professionals. Tactical’s core products consist of covert body worn audio transmitters, repeaters, and intelligence kits which include receivers and recording capabilities.  Recently one these products, the Citation V, was featured last March in an episode of CSI: Miami. Other products include custom built surveillance vehicles, mobile/portable surveillance platforms; Cellular/IP based video surveillance systems, agent alert alarm transmitters, and other video surveillance systems. Tactical’s operations are located in Holmes, Pennsylvania; about five miles west of Philadelphia.

There’s actually more information about Tactical Technologies’ products on the NSI website than there is on its own company website,

Under the laws of the United States of America,
the dissemination of product information for goods
manufactured by Tactical Technologies Inc. is restricted.

I did finally find the NTS management team page (which includes the two SFU scientists [Bozena Kaminska and Clint Landrock] whose work provides the platform for this company’s products) on the NTS website  in the Press Room area [Note Oct. 3, 2011: Stylistic and grammatical changes made]. The description for Doug Blakeway, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, provides this information,

Mr. Blakeway is Chairman and CEO of Nanotech Security Corp. (formerly Wireless2 Technologies Inc.), a publicly traded international high level public security corporation which he founded in 1985 and Managing Director for G4S Justice Services (Canada) Inc. [emphases mine] Mr. Blakeway has extensive connections in the security and policing sectors. As an entrepreneur and investor, over the past 40 years, he has founded and operated a number of successful endeavors from service oriented companies to high technology electronic manufacturing. Mr. Blakeway is a proven inventor with a variety of diverse patents for such things as a rotary engine; a portable diamond drill feed, a fluid management system, GPS asset and personnel tracking systems and an infrared night viewing system. As a helicopter pilot, his vision and tenacity resulted in the founding of WM Aviation Inc. – the parent company of Helijet Airways, the first regional helicopter service in B.C. He is presently an entrepreneur in Residence at Simon Fraser University, Venture Connection. He mentors companies and individuals and is a member of the BC Angle Form and an investor in early stage companies. Since 1982, Mr. Blakeway has been a director of a number of public companies on the TSX & Venture Exchange. He is currently a member of the board of directors of Nanotech Security Corp., IDIT Technologies Corp., IDME Development Corp., Legend Power Systems Inc, Tactical Technologies Inc, Wireless Industry Partnership Connector Inc. (WIP), and RFind Systems, Inc. Mr. Blakeway serves on audit, compensation and corporate governance committees and with his knowledge of the policies and procedures for listing Capital Pool Companies (CPC’s) has facilitated the successful qualification of a CPC to a Tier 2 issuer on the TSX Venture Exchange. Mr. Blakeway is a past member of member of British Columbia Securities Policy Advisory Committee (SPAC), and member of Simon Fraser University Surrey – Business Advisory Council, Canadian Listed Company Association, The Digital Media and Wireless Association of BC (DigiBC), Wavefront Wireless Innovation Society of BC and The Executive Committee (TEC), an international organization for CEOs.

The reference to Wireless2 Technologies could explain [Note Oct. 3, 2011: This was originally worded as “certainly explains”] why the company can claim a history of 20 years or more and I expect  they are using the association with Tactical Technologies as reason to claim experience in security, surveillance, etc. I was not able to find much information about Wireless2 Technologies.

As well, I’m not clear as to the relationship that Strategic Technologies has with anything and I can’t find much information about it either. Further, I was not able to find mention of Mr. Blakeway on the G4S (Canada) website. Here’s the company history,

G4S Secure Solutions (Canada) Ltd. was founded in October 1966 by retired members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as Canadian Protection Services (CPS).

A recently expanded service offering, which includes all critical areas of the security industry, our Secure Solutions team has nearly 8,000 employees across the country.  We operate in many different markets from Government to Private Energy & Utilities, Condominiums & Residential to Transport & Logistics, Major Corporations to Financial Institutions, Petrochemical to Natural Resources, and Healthcare to Retail & Loss Prevention.

In early 2000, G4S Cash Solutions (Canada) Ltd. entered the Canadian market as Securicor, with the purchase of a number of cash services providers. Through these acquisitions, G4S Cash Solutions gained over 71 years of experience of the Canadian cash services market.

In 2005, expansion continued with the acquisition of Ontario’s largest regional service provider, a move that further ingrained the business in the nation’s largest market. With over 2,500 employees and 55 branches across the country, G4S Cash Solutions continues to operate the largest, market leading coast-to-coast service network in Canada.

As a result of the 2004 merger between Group 4 Falck A/S and Securicor plc, two Canadian security service divisions were united in Canada under a global brand.

With over 10,000 employees across the nation, G4S brings a wealth of security knowledge and expertise to the Canadian marketplace.

In Canada, our complete focus as security experts is to provide innovative and quality security solutions to businesses across the country.

I cannot find a reference to G4S Justice Services (Canada) other than listings in the Yellow Pages, CanPages, and the like. G4S is an international company which was founded in 1901 in Denmark. Its headquarters are currently located in the UK. The Canadian subsidiary is in fact two entities G4S Secure Solutions (Canada) and G4S Case Solutions (Canada). Mr. Blakeway is not included on the website as a member of either management team. As I noted it’s all rather puzzling but that may be due to my ignorance of business structures.

It’s early days yet for NTS and I imagine this is the ‘growing pains’ part of the process and that these inconsistencies will be rectified and, perhaps, some of the more ‘hyped’ terminology regarding the products and the attempts to fuse the company name with the entire field of nanotechnology will be toned down.

IBM, Intel, and New York state

$4.4B is quite the investment(especially considering the current international economic gyrations) and it’s the amount that IBM (International Business Machines), Intel, and three other companies announced that they are investing to “create the next generation of computer chip technology.” From the Sept. 28, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The five companies involved are Intel, IBM, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, TSMC and Samsung. New York State secured the investments in competition with countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The agreements mark an historic level of private investment in the nanotechnology sector in New York. [emphasis mine]

Research and development facilities will be located in Albany, Canandaigua, Utica, East Fishkill and Yorktown Heights. In addition, Intel separately agreed to establish its 450mm East Coast Headquarters to support the overall project management in Albany. [emphasis mine]

The money is being spent on two projects,

The investment in the state is made up of two projects. The first project, which will be led by IBM and its partners, will focus on making the next two generations of computer chips. These new chips will power advanced systems of all sizes, including, among other things computers and national security applications. This new commitment by IBM brings its total investment in chip technology in New York to more than $10 billion in the last decade.

The second project, which is a joint effort by Intel, IBM, TSMC, Global Foundries and Samsung, will focus on transforming existing 300mm technology into the new 450mm technology. [emphasis mine] The new technology will produce more than twice the number of chips processed on today’s 300 mm wafers thus lowering costs to deliver future generations of technology with greater value and lower environmental impact.

I had to read that bit about increasing the size of the chips a few times since the news items I come across usually crow about decreasing the size.

I have been intermittently following news about the nanotechnology sector in New York state for some time (scroll about 1/2 way down my January 29, 2010 posting). In 2008, IBM announced a $1.5B investment toward the nanotechnology sector in that state.

I wish there had been some description of the investments in the nanotechnology sector as opposed to the generalized statements about jobs, purchasing ‘Made in NY’ technology, and the reference to millimeter (mm) scale computer chips. As for the “450mm East Coast Headquarters,” they may want to rethink that name.

Cars that read minds?

Today’s blogging seems to have acquired a transportation theme. Here’s another item about a car, this one can read minds. From the Sept. 28, 2011 news item on,

In the future, thinking about turning left may no longer be just a thought. Japanese auto giant Nissan and a Swiss university are developing cars that scan the driver’s thoughts and prepares the vehicle for the next move.

I found more information at the Nissan website in their Sept.28, 2011 news release,

As the driver thinks about turning left ahead, for example, so the car will prepare itself for the manoeuvre, selecting the correct speed and road positioning, before completing the turn. The aim? To ensure that our roads are as safe as possible and that the freedom that comes with personal mobility remains at the heart of society.

Nissan is undertaking this pioneering work in collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland (EPFL). Far reaching research on Brain Machine Interface (BMI) systems by scientists at EPFL already allows disabled users to manoeuvre their wheelchairs by thought transference alone. The next stage is to adapt the BMI processes to the car – and driver – of the future.

Professor José del R. Millán, leading the project, said: “The idea is to blend driver and vehicle intelligence together in such a way that eliminates conflicts between them, leading to a safer motoring environment.”

Using brain activity measurement, eye movement patterns and by scanning the environment around the car in conjunction with the car’s own sensors, it should be possible to predict what the driver plans to do – be it a turn, an overtake, a lane change – and then assist with the manoeuvre in complete safety, thus improving the driving experience.

Here’s an image of some of the lab work being performed,

Nissan Brain-Computer Interface. Photo Credit: EPFL / Alain Herzog

I wonder what it’s going to look like when it’s ready for testing with real people. I’m pretty sure most people are not going to be interested in wearing head caps for very long. I imagine the researchers have come to this conclusion too, which means that they are likely considering some very sophisticated sensors. (I hope so, otherwise the researchers are somewhat delusional.  Sadly, this can be true. I speak from experiences dealing with technical experts who seemed to be designing their software for failure, i.e. the average person using would be likely to make an error.)

Interview with the Urbee car’s Jim Kor

In an earlier posting today, (Manitoba’s Urbee) about the Urbee, I promised an interview with Jim Kor, project leader and lead designer. Befoe getting to the interview, here’s a little biographical information from the Urbee website’s Team page,

Jim Kor is a professional engineer (mechanical) with over 35 years of experience in designing automotive, bus, rail, agricultural, and heavy mobile equipment as well as civil structures and product for the aerospace and medical industries. He is the senior designer and project leader for the Urbee project. Jim is the owner of Kor Product Design, a 30 year old international consulting firm.

Congratulations on your achievement, i.e., getting your first prototype completed. Could you describe the 3D printing process in simple terms? (e.g. do you lay down layers of atoms? particles? bits of polymer?; what does a 3D printer look like compared to the printers most of us are accustomed to?; etc.)

The 3-D printing process is an additive process, where a ‘3-D printer’ precisely places a material (such as plastic), thin strands or particles at a time, layer by layer, with each layer bonding to the next, all under computer control, until a rigid part emerges. These 3-D printers look like large metal boxes, and can be the size of bar-fridges (desktop models) or walk-in freezers (floor-mounted models). The input to the machine is strands of material (wound in loops, like wire), and the output is finished parts.

Has this 3D printing process been enabled by nanotechnology?

Yes, I believe so. The head, where the material emerges hot and bonds to the lower layer, is where all the action takes place, and most of the technology is focussed.

Is every single element (tires, windows, seats, panels, etcl) of this car produced by 3D printing?

On our first prototype Urbee, just the body panels are 3-D printed. All the windows were also 3-D printed, but these 3-D printed parts were used as patterns for making the plastic and glass windows within Urbee.

How long does it take to print a piece?
The larger pieces currently can take a long time, or at least they did on our first prototype. But, we are learning, and this machine time will come down, especially with further progress regarding the printing of larger panels.

I gather you’re raising funds for your 2nd prototype. Is that one going to be identical to the first or are you refining the design and how?

The second prototype will greatly benefit from the first prototype (the first time we have seen all major components working within the car). We plan on refining and expanding our use of 3-D printing, taking it into the interior and parts of the chassis.
How close is your product to being commercialized and what would it take to get it commercialized?

We are at first prototype stage. Most optimistic production date would be 2014. It will take continued Research & Development by our Team to get us there.

Could you tell me a little bit about how this project came to be located in Manitoba?

The originators of the project, and most of the Urbee Team lives and works (as designers and engineers) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Have you gotten provincial and federal support for this project? And, if any, what kind? Have you also gotten support from venture capitalists, banks, etc.?

We have gratefully received financial assistance, but the project remains largely self-funded. Without financial assistance (especially donations), and without the expertise and in-kind support of our sponsors (as listed on our website), the project could not have advanced to the point it has. We continue to receive fantastic support from some of the best people, within some of the best companies and organizations in the world. Hats off to them for making this project what it is today.

On a completely different note, Urbee sounds like Herbie, the name of a Volkswagen beetle featured in a number of Disney movies. Was this intentional?

No, it was not intentional. URBEE stands for URBan Electric with Ethanol as back-up. It is a project name that has stuck, is rather unique (easy to do google searches), and which I personally have grown to like. I don’t mind being associated with the original VW Beetle, one of the best-selling cars in the world, … ever, …. (over 24 million units sold worldwide, I believe).

Why did you choose that particular colour for your prototype?

The Industrial Designers within the Team chose the colour. They are extremely talented (the best in the world, in my opinion). They have designed the body to not only look aesthetically pleasing and ‘correct’, but have achieved a Coefficient of Drag (Cd) of 0.15, … extremely low for a practical car. Some would say impossibly low, but two independent computer aerodynamic simulations have verified this number, so we are satisfied that we are there. It is what makes us claim that ‘One day all cars will look like this’, because this body shape honours the physics of the problem (a car body moving at the bottom of an ocean of air).

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Thanks to all those that have helped advance this groundbreaking and important project. Thanks for your interest in this project, that is helping propel it forward. And keep your eye on our website (, to see where we’re going next.

Thank you and I wish you and your team the best of luck, Jim Kor.

Here’s one more look at the Urbee,

Urbee rear side at TEDxWinnipeg Sept. 15,2011

ETA Sept. 28,2011 11:50 am PST: I’ve corrected a few grammatical and spelling errors of my own. I am including two videos featuring the Urbee. The first is promotional video produced by the Urbee team,

This second video is a clip from a television programme interview of Jim Kor and Jeff Hanson discussing the 3D printing process and the Urbee,

Manitoba’s Urbee

Manitoba's Urbee and its engineering team at TEDxWinnipeg Sept. 15, 2011 event

There’s a brand new car (prototype) in town. It was unveiled at TEDx Winnipeg on Sept. 15, 2011 by Manitoba-based company. From the Urbee website,

Urbee is a two-passenger hybrid car designed to be incredibly fuel efficient, easy to repair, safe to drive, and inexpensive to own.

Shortly after the TED presentation, the Urbee was featured in a Sept. 20, 2011 article by Ariel Schwartz for Fast Company and in a Sept. 21, 2011 news item for BBC News. From the Schwartz article,

Last year, Stratasys and Kor Ecologic teamed up to develop the first 3-D printed car–a vehicle that has its entire body 3-D printed layer by layer until a finished product emerges. The Urbee was just a partially completed prototype when we first wrote about it last year. …


The [finished] prototype, unveiled a few days ago at the TEDx Winnipeg event, is a two-passenger, single-cylinder, eight-horsepower vehicle. That means it has significantly less power than today’s vehicles, which usually have at least 68 horsepower. But those missing horses don’t matter: the Urbee requires just an eighth of the energy of conventional cars. The electric-ethanol hybrid is also designed to get up to 200 mpg on the highway and 100 mpg in city conditions–and it lasts up to 30 years.

There are more details about the printing process and its contribution to the car’s ‘greeness’ in the BBC article,

The use of “additive manufacturing”, where layers of material are built up, or “printed” to form a solid objects, contributed to the car’s green credentials, according to project leader Jim Kor.

“One only puts material where one needs it,” explained Mr Kor, who unveiled his vehicle at the TEDxWinnipeg conference.

“It is an additive process, building the part essentially one ‘molecule’ of material at a time, ultimately with no waste.

“This process can do many materials, and our goal would be to use fully-recycled materials.”

Currently it is only the Urbee’s body panels that are printed – by Minneapolis-based Stratasys. However, Mr Kor said he hoped that other parts would be produced this way in future.

Jim Kor, project leader and lead designer, very kindly answered some questions for an interview about the Urbee, which I will be posting later today.

Viruses as manufacturing plants

In her January 2011 TEDx talk at Caltech (California Institute of Technology), MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Professor Angela Belcher talks about using viruses to grow batteries that don’t require toxic materials for their production or produce toxic materials themselves. It’s similar to biomimicry in that the reference point is nature but rather than trying to simulate nature using synthetic materials this work focuses on tweaking nature so that something like a virus can be used to create something new, e.g., a battery, a solar cell, etc.


A Sept. 25, 2011 article by Karen Weintraub on the BBC News website offers further insight into Belcher’s work,

Prof Belcher’s work unites the inanimate world of simple chemicals with proteins made by living creatures, a mash-up of the living and the lifeless.

She is motivated, she says, by a simple question: “How do you give life to non-living things?”

Like the abalone collecting its materials in shallow water and then laying them down like bricks in a wall, Belcher takes basic chemical elements from the natural world: carbon, calcium, silicon, zinc. Then she mixes them with simple, harmless viruses whose genes have been reprogrammed to promote random variations.

The resulting new materials just might address some of our most vexing problems.

The distinctiveness of Prof Belcher’s work, colleagues say, lies in her use of biology to synthesise new materials for such a wide range of uses, to develop an entirely new method for producing entirely novel materials.

“Her methodologies for directing and assembling materials I think will be unique,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor who collaborates with Prof Belcher on battery research. “I think 50 years from now, we’ll look back on biology as an important part of the toolkit in manufacturing… we’ll look back and say this is one of the fundamental tools we developed in this century.”

As I’ve been thinking about life/nonlife (in the context of human enhancement and memristors), this works offers me additional food for thought. Meanwhile, the TEDx talk and the Weintraub article point to some of the vast difference between scientists and lay people (general public). Belcher references life/nonlife quite casually, almost in passing. This could be quite disturbing to folks who believe there’s a distinct difference. The disturbances don’t stop there.

In the first place, viruses do not have a good reputation. When you add in the problems with calling your work biotechnology (as Belcher does in her TEDx talk), the stage is set for some interesting possibilities. If that isn’t enough, Belcher’s work comes perilously close to Eric Drexler’s self-assembling nano entities and the spectre of ‘grey’ or ‘green’ goo. It’s been a while since the big scares over genetically modified organisms (GMO), I wonder if scientists have forgotten or perhaps they don’t realize just how much conflicting (and often frightening) information is still being pushed at the general public. As for breaching the life/nonlife boundaries, that could be a whole other mess.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developement’s (OECD) Science, Technology and Industry 2011 Scoreboard

The OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2011: Innovation and Growth in Knowledge Economies is making a bit of a splash with regard to its analysis of patent quality. From the Sept.23, 2011 news item on,

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard for 2011 and one section shows that patent quality over the past 20 years has declined dramatically, mainly the authors say, due to excessive litigation by so-called non-practicing entities that seek to exploit patent laws. The result they say, is a glut of minor or incremental patent applications that add little to scientific progress.

Mike Masnick at Techdirt weighed in on the matter in his Even The OECD Is Noting How Dreadful Patent Quality Is Negatively Impacting Innovation posting with an oft-repeated suggestion,

Of course, the real way to fix this problem is to make the bar to get a patent much, much higher. If you do that, you get less [sic] bogus patent apps being submitted, and it makes it easier to reject such bogus patents.

What Masnick means by bogus is clarified in this quote from the Sept. 23, 2011 news item,

The problem it appears has come about due to the rise of non-practicing entities [patent trolls]; groups that form for the sole purpose of applying for patents in the hopes of suing someone else who happens to use the same ideas, rather than as a means for building an actual product; though not all of the rise can be attributed to such entities as large corporations have apparently become much more litigious as well.

Canada’s Research in Motiion (RIM), maker of Blackberry mobile devices,  was sued by a non-practicing entity, NTP, Inc. Here’s a little more about the situation (from a Wikipedia essay on NTP),

NTP has been characterized as a patent troll because it is a non-practicing entity that aggressively enforces its patent porfolio against larger, well established companies. The most notable case was against Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry mobile email system.

In 2000, NTP sent notice of their wireless email patents to a number of companies and offered to license the patents to them. None of the companies took a license. NTP brought a patent infringement lawsuit against one of the companies, Research in Motion, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. …

During the trial, RIM tried to show that a functional wireless email system was already in the public domain at the time the NTP inventions had been made. This would have invalidated the NTP patents. The prior system was called System for Automated Messages (SAM). RIM demonstrated SAM in court and it appeared to work. But the NTP attorneys discovered that RIM was not using vintage SAM software, but a more modern version that came after NTP’s inventions were made. Therefore the judge instructed the jury to disregard the demonstration as invalid.

The jury eventually found that the NTP patents were valid, that RIM had infringed them, that the infringement had been “willful”, and that the infringement had cost NTP $33 million in damages (the greater of a reasonable royalty or lost profits). The judge, James R. Spencer increased the damages to $53 million as a punitive measure because the infringement had been willful. He also instructed RIM to pay NTP’s legal fees of $4.5 million and issued an injunction ordering RIM to cease and desist infringing the patents. This would have shut down the BlackBerry systems in the US.

There was a settlement made by RIM with NTP in 2006. Simultaneously however, RIM continued to request patent reexaminations and so the patents are still being fought over.

All this makes one wonder just how much innovation and invention could have been stimulated with the funds used to fight and settle this court case.

Intriguingly, RIM was part of a consortium of six companies that during July 2011 successfully purchased former communications giant Nortel Networks’ patent portfolio. From the July 1, 2011 article by Charles Arther for the Guardian,

Apple, Microsoft, Sony and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion are part of a winning consortium of six companies which have bought a valuable tranche of patents from the bankrupt Nortel Networks patent portfolio for $4.5bn (£2.8bn), in a hotly contested auction that saw Google and Intel lose out.

Early signs had suggested that Google might be the winning bidder for the patents, which will provide valuable armoury for expected disputes in the communications – and especially smartphone – field.

The result could give Apple and Microsoft the upper hand in any forthcoming patents rows. [emphasis mine] Microsoft is already extracting payments from a number of companies that use Google’s Android mobile operating system on the basis that it owns patents that they were infringing. Oracle has big court case against Google alleging that Android infringes a number of Java patents, and claiming $6.1bn in damages.

The other two companies partnering in the consortium are EMC, a storage company, and Ericsson, a communications company.

As Arthur’s article makes clear, this deal is designed facilitate cash grabs based on Nortel’s patent portfolio and/or to constrain innovation. It’s fascinating to note that RIM is both a target vis à vis its NTP experience and a possible aggressor as part of this consortium. Again, imagine how those billions of dollars could have been used for greater innovation and invention.

Other topics were covered as well, the page hosting the OECD scorecard information boasts a couple of animations, one of particular interest to me (sadly I cannot embed it here). The item of interest is the animation featuring 30 years of R&D investments in OECD and non-OECD countries. It’s a very lively 16 seconds and you may need to view it a few times. You’ll see some countries rocket out of nowhere to make their appearance on the chart (Finland and Korea come to mind) and you’ll see some countries progress steadily while others fall back. The Canadian trajectory shows slow and steady growth until approximately 2000 when we fall back for a year or two after which we remain stagnant.