Here are some sample technology stories


By Sue Vorenberg
The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 29, 2008

Wile E. Coyote has had more than his share of bumps, scrapes and splats at the feet of the New Mexico state bird, but that doesn't mean another state institution can't help him.

New Mexico Tech has offered to help the famous coyote get back at his nemesis, the roadrunner, in a science TV series tentatively titled Man vs. Cartoon, being filmed by Pilgrim Films & Television, a California company.

"The idea is that the coyote is sick and tired of Acme products failing, so he's going to seek out some help, " said Van Romero, vice president for research and economic development at Tech. "He'll come to New Mexico Tech, talk to our engineers and will ask them 'I can't get this stuff to work, what's wrong?' "

Students and professors at the Socorro university will then do the math and run experiments to see how to make things really work -- like the well-known stunt where the coyote tries to drop a boulder on the roadrunner, and fails miserably.

"We have a 200-foot cliff at the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, where we blow stuff up, " Romero said. "The students will have to calculate if the roadrunner is going at a certain speed, and the coyote is going to drop the rock, what time exactly does he have to drop it."

And that's actually a lot harder than it seems, Romero said.

"It's not a trivial calculation -- drag plays a major role, " he said, noting that wind drag is especially hard to calculate for uneven objects like the rocks or boulders that Wile E. Coyote likes to drop.

So that no actual roadrunners are harmed during production, Tech is going to build a mechanical roadrunner to take the bird's place.

"Word has come down from the Legislature, which isn't too fond of the idea of us harming the state bird, that we can't actually kill him, " Romero said. "So we'll smash him, but he'll have to be able to spring back and walk around afterward."

That's not an easy trick either, considering the students intend to drop a 500-pound sphere, then a boulder off the cliff and onto the unsuspecting robot.

The state Senate passed a memorial, SM40, sponsored by Joseph J. Carraro, in the most recent session designating New Mexico Tech as the "Home of the Mechanical Roadrunner, " though, so it wouldn't be wise for Tech to smash what could be the school's first real mascot, Romero said.

"You have the Lobos, the Aggies and now the Mechanical Roadrunners, " Romero said with a laugh.

The Senate memorial also takes the liberty of adding details to some of the character's titles -- just like the cartoon series has always done.

Those titles are:

- Wile E. Coyote (road-runner digestus)

- Roadrunner (hot rodicus supersonica)

- New Mexico Tech (smartius pantsius universitatus)

- Tech President Dan Lopez (largus bossaloticus)

The memorial also calls Wile E. Coyote's attacks on the roadrunner "an intolerable assault on a bird that is held dearly in the hearts and minds of the people of this state."

And it says that "this mechanical roadrunner must meet or exceed the demanding standards of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, while using only green or red chile as a power source."

Still, Tech's students and faculty will do their best to give the coyote a fighting chance, Romero said.

Other gags in the six-part series will include putting the coyote on a rocket sled as a means to catch the roadrunner, and dropping something on the roadrunner from a hot air balloon, he said.

"A lot of these stunts, we'll get physics classes or chemical engineering classes or other classes to determine why the coyote's efforts haven't worked, " Romero said.

The shows should air this fall on True TV, said Craig Piligian, executive producer for the series at Pilgrim.

His group is partnering with Warner Brothers for the show, he said.

The estimated cost per episode is about $50,000, which the production company will pay for, Romero added.

"We're treating this just like any other research project, " Romero said. "The funding goes into the different research entities, which will pay staff, student and research salaries."

Tech chose to work with Pilgrim because the company also produces Dirty Jobs, on the Discovery Channel and Ghost Hunters on the Sci-fi Channel, Romero said.

And there's even more to come.

After the Man vs. Cartoon series, Pilgrim and Tech are planning a 14-part series looking at engineers and scientists for a show in the vein of Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, Romero said.

"It will be sort of a day-in-the-life show, with aspects of engineering, seismology, lightning and other research, " Romero said. "New Mexico Tech is obviously known for the explosives work we do, but there's a lot of other cutting-edge research."

The tentative name of that show has a catchy ring to it, too. It will likely be called Blow Up U, and it should air sometime in spring 2009, Piligian said.

"It's really going to be a docu-soap series on what they do at the university, " Piligian said. "They do unbelievable things every day. It's not unlike American Chopper, where they build bikes, that's what it's going to be."

Sandia National Laboratories is creating an emergency alert system for cell phones

By Sue Vorenberg
Albuquerque Tribune
Monday, September 3, 2007

We've all heard the familiar electronic bleating of our televisions and radios for the federal Emergency Alert System.

Soon, our cell phones and pagers could be blaring out warnings, too - telling us about situations happening in counties, cities or even individual neighborhoods.

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories are developing a public warning system that would travel over the ubiquitous electronic devices.

The initial goal is to use it as a warning system for hurricanes in the Gulf Coast states. Eventually, though, it will be expanded to cover all sorts of emergency situations - like tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes and chemical spills, said Ron Glaser, an engineer and manager on the project.

"We're trying to extend that old system of TV crawls and radio announcements - that buzzing - into the 21st century," Glaser said. "We're making a private grid for emergency managers so they can send a message to mobile media and actually geo-target it to a specific area."

While it likely won't be available in Albuquerque for at least two years, the system looks promising and could save lives in a variety of situations here, said Greg Sanchez, emergency manager for the city.

It could be especially useful in flash floods, thunderstorms, Amber Alerts and tornadoes, Sanchez said.

"The need to get information like that out quickly makes a difference in how many lives we can save," Sanchez said. "I'm anxious for the development of it - and sooner rather than later would be great. The system we have now is outdated."

Signals over television and radio just don't reach as many people as they used to, he said.

"Sending out signals over cell phones, BlackBerrys, pagers would add a lot," Sanchez said.

The system wouldn't replace the current Emergency Alert System but complement it, Glaser added.

Cell phones and other electronic devices already have unused channels where the emergency signals can be sent. The trick is setting up a system to deliver those signals and then working out the details with the Federal Communications Commission, Glaser said.

"What the FCC can do is tell service providers how they should provide and implement this, and then tell emergency managers how to send messages out to those gateways," Glaser said.

It probably won't make the same noise as the signal on television, but people should be able to set their phones or other devices up with specific rings for the service, said Heidi Ammerlahn, another engineer on the project.

So far, the system is only available for people who sign up for it in three of the Gulf Coast states. But eventually the goal is to incorporate it into all electronic devices without people having to opt in, she said.

The system, like TV emergency alerts, will likely be set up to test-ring once a month, Glaser added.

The technology shouldn't cost much - and people could most likely install it by just dialing a number on their cell phone, Glaser said.

Since the beginning of August, engineers have been testing it in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. A full-scale national rollout probably won't be available until hurricane season in 2009, however.

"We used it in Mississippi for Hurricane Dean in mid-August, and we used the governor's voice, because it's someone familiar," Glaser said. "People respond better to a voice they've heard rather than an automated voice."

The system will likely take advantage of video capabilities in newer phones.

In those three test states, one cell phone provider is using American Sign Language interpreters to make video clips of the alerts to help people with difficulty hearing.

Another thing the system could help with is emergency evacuations of cities, Glaser said.

"In evacuations, what they'd really like to do is stage it so more of the roads don't clog," Glaser said. "So with this we can go on and evacuate sector by sector by using the system in specific areas."


Los Alamos scientist creates gun that can collect crime scene evidence

By Sue Vorenberg
Albuquerque Tribune
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If Los Alamos National Laboratory were to endorse its latest law enforcement gadget with an infomercial, a booming voice might shout out the following:

"It scans, swipes, tracks GPS locations, sends data, takes pictures and even has an LED flashlight attachment."

The device - designed for sampling crime scenes - could easily take the title of "Swiss Army Gun," although the Swiss Army Brands Inc. might have a problem with that, said Michael Erickson, a business development officer at the lab.

"You could call it that, I suppose. It really is an ingenious device," Erickson said. "You can collect, record, track samples and do many other things quickly and reliably with it."

The gadget - which weighs less than a pound and looks a bit like a nail gun - doesn't have a bottle opener or a pair of scissors attached, but it has pretty much everything else a crime scene investigator needs to take samples, prevent contamination and preserve the chain of evidence, said Erickson and Torsten Staab, the lab scientist who invented it.

"We wanted to find a way to avoid contaminating samples in the field, while speeding up the collection process," Staab said. "Most of the information taken in the field now is done by two people - one who samples and one who manually logs things in. This is much faster."

Sample collection - such as swabbing surfaces to find certain chemicals or biological weapons - can be a lengthy process. Investigators manually collect substances, write down details about location and time, and then transcribe them into a computer later in the day.

The gadget puts all those steps into one package, and reduces sample collection to a process that only takes a minute or two, Staab said.

Staab came up with the idea for the device about three and a half years ago, after working with an industrial hygienist at Los Alamos and wondering if there was a way to simplify the sampling process, he said.

"We also wanted to prevent possible hazards to the collector," Staab said. "So we made an adaptor so you don't have to touch the sample at all. The gun ejects a filter disk which you can put right into a sample bag without using your hands."

The gun also has a wireless network card so encrypted crime scene data can be sent wirelessly back to a computer - without the need to transcribe information by hand.

"If, say, somebody from the FBI collected a sample at a person's house, they can create a complete chain of custody," Staab said. "You can take photos of the evidence, scan bar codes, record voice samples and also take environmental information like temperature and distance."

And because all the information is instantly transferred to a computer, the chain of custody is constantly tracked - making it less open to scrutiny, Staab said.

Staab received $75,000 from the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology - a Department of Defense program - three years ago to create a prototype.

A team of five Los Alamos employees worked with Staab to develop it, and CCAT spent an additional $7,000 for two more prototype devices in January, which are now complete, Staab said.

Hazardous materials teams at the lab tested the device during the past year and were happy with it, Staab said.

By the end of the year, Los Alamos hopes to find a commercial partner to mass-produce and market the gun, Erickson said.

"We've identified probably around 100 companies that we think would have an interest," Erickson said. "And for as high tech a gadget as this is, it's actually a relatively low-cost item."

The price should be somewhere around $1,500 each - which is affordable for most law enforcement agencies, he said.

And unlike a lot of lab-developed technology, the gun is fully finished and ready to go, Staab said.

"We can just easily hand it out to a company and they can produce it," Staab said. "It should be ready commercially perhaps next year."


Researching the nature of Chinese Internet censorship

By Sue Vorenberg
Albuquerque Tribune
Saturday, September 15, 2007

This story will not be read on China's Internet.

It won't make it through the censorship process because of the following terms: massacre, Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, multidimensional, red terror, conversion rate.

And even if it does make it through the country's computer censors, it's unlikely anyone would read it — because most people, when they realize certain concepts are banned, will avoid them, said Jed Crandall, an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico computer science department.

"People have talked about the `Great Firewall of China,' but it's not a true firewall," Crandall said. "It blocks sites periodically based on certain words, and if you do enough blocking that way, people tend to engage in self-censorship."

Crandall and several researchers from the University of California-Davis recently finished a study investigating the nature of Chinese Internet censorship.

They'll present their findings at the Conference on Computer and Communications Security in October.

One of the more interesting findings — besides the filtering of some strange words — was that the filtering process itself is very imprecise, said Daniel Zinn, a UC-Davis graduate student who worked on the project.

"It shows that it really is enough to only filter words once in a while," Zinn said.

It's a process that Americans might be more familiar with than they realize, he said.

"If you think of it, it's sort of like driving in this country," Zinn said. "It's easy to surpass the speed limit, and you can do that once in a while. But you don't know if the cops are around or not, so you tend to be very careful about it."

Some Internet service providers in China also filter more keywords than others. Chinanet, which is the main provider, filters a much larger percentage of keywords than other providers, Crandall said.

In some cases, providers may be filtering thousands of keywords and blocking any sites that use them. But that can have unintended consequences, Crandall said.

"There's a city in West Germany that has been blocked because in Chinese the characters are similar to the word multi-dimensional," Crandall said. "In this case, multi-dimensional seems to correspond to a news site they don't like."

Because of that bit of censorship, people in China can't look up the German town or any scientific papers that include the word multi-dimensional, he said.

China has also blocked the name of a French town, probably because an Asian film festival is held there, Crandall said.

Perhaps the strangest blocked term is conversion rate, because it seems so innocuous, Crandall and Zinn said.

"It might be conversion rate to a particular religion or whatever," Zinn said. "There are certainly some surprising words."

Still, the researchers all were reluctant to say whether they thought Internet censorship was good or bad.

Some countries block child pornography and Nazi propaganda, which Zinn said is a good thing in his opinion .

"We're more interested in figuring out the nature of censorship, rather than whether it's a bad or good thing," Zinn said.

In the near future, the group hopes to build an `Internet censorship weather center' Web site where the public can check out which words are being censored in China at different times, Crandall said.

And that site — at least in the United States — won't be censored, he said.

"We do plan on making the list public," Crandall said.