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News Items July, August, September 2001

Fuel Cells for Laptop Computers (9/13/01) 

Faster, Cheaper CPU Chips (8/23/01)

Possibly Much Cheaper Flat Panel Displays (8/13/01)

Mandatory Distance Learning Coursework (8/7/01)

IBM Adopts "Grid Computing" Strategy (8/7/01)

Laptop Computers for Every 7th Grade Student
in Maine (8/6/01)

Search Engines and Built-in Advertising (8/1/01)

Poorer Countries Get Free E-Access to
Medical Journals (7/21/01)

Online Master's Degree Coming To Arizona (7/21/01)

Microcomputers: Oregon vs. South Dakota (7/16/01)

Crackdown on Pirated Software in Schools (7/11/01)

Increasing Bandwidth of Fiber Optics (7/6/01)

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Fuel Cells for Laptop Computers

Batteries for handheld and other small portable electronic devices are a major problem. The following brief news item suggests that we will soon have fuel cells that far outperform current batteries.

(September 9, 2001). The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Accessed 9/13/01: http://www.accessatlanta.com/ajc/epaper/editions/
Someday soon, you may own a cellular phone or laptop computer that runs on methanol, the same fuel that powers drag racers. Both NEC and Sony are working on the technology right now, using fuel cells that turn methanol into electricity. These new batteries are much more efficient than the current king-of-the-hill battery, lithium-ion. NEC claims the new batteries offer 10 times more power per weight than lithium-ion at a comparable cost. The company says it could begin production by 2002. The new batteries would let mobile phones and laptops last for weeks without recharging.

Here is material from a 1999 article that discussed progress in developing such fuel cells.

Parrish, Michael (December 30, 1999). Fuel Cells Power Brave New Energy World. Environmental News Network [Online]. Accessed 9/13/01: http://www.enn.com/enn-features
A new, lightweight fuel cell that runs on methanol may one day power your electric car. Sooner still, the new cell may fuel smaller devices such as your weed-wacker, lap-top computer or mobile phone.

If they work, methanol fuel cells could be a major breakthrough in energy consumption and conservation. The brave new technology could drastically cut air pollution from auto emissions and other sources.

Whether they are used to run cars and buses or to make electricity for other applications, fuel cells operate by converting hydrogen to electricity without combustion. They are akin to continuously-recharging batteries. Hydrogen and oxygen are fed into a stack of plates that create electricity, with harmless water vapor as the byproduct.

These silent, zero-emission gadgets have long been used in NASA spacecraft. They represent the great hope of many environmentalists to power the first mass-produced electric car. While batteries alone haven't supplied the performance most drivers want, proponents believe that fuel cells, probably combined with batteries, hold the promise of performance, range and better mileage compared with today's internal combustion engines.

The size and weight of fuel cells have always been problems. New fuel-cell technology promises to solve those issues.

Fuel cells can use various sources of hydrogen, including a simple tank of compressed gas. But methanol, a liquid usually produced from natural gas, is a much more efficient way to store hydrogen. This is why the first wave of fuel cells in cars will likely use an indirect methanol fuel cell, in which the methanol passes through a mechanism called a "reformer," which extracts the hydrogen.

The direct method, which could be available commercially in five or six years, would use different, lighter stacks of plates that eliminate the need for a reformer. Thus, the proposed next generation of fuel cells could be smaller, lighter and more adaptable. "You could put them into consumer electronic products," says Todd Marsh, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based DTI Energy, a small technology company.

Marsh envisions fuel cells in lawn mowers, snow-blowers, jet skis and other mobile devices which now contribute to noise and air pollution, and which don't run well on batteries.

A lap-top computer, for instance, could work much longer on a tiny fuel cell than on rechargeable batteries. "Then, rather than waiting for the thing to recharge, you could simply slip in another ampoule of methanol," says Marsh.

Marsh is licensing the patent for a direct-methanol fuel cell developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Comment: Notice that the prediction in December of 1999 was that it would take 5-6 years to bring the first products to market. Now, it appears that the first products will be available in about half of that time. If this technology works out as projected, it be of considerable help to "road warriors." (Although the term "road warriors" usually refers to business people who spend a lot of time traveling, it seems like it could equally well refer to many millions of students and others who are "employed" in other areas.)

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Faster, Cheaper CPU Chips

Intel is releasing its new 2-gigahertz microprocessor, to be priced in the mid-$500 range (about half of what it charged for its fastest chips a year ago); prices on the older Pentium chips will be cut by as much as 54%, as part of a continuing price war between Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Industry analyst Douglas Lee says, "Intel has made it very clear that they are going to rapidly push the Pentium 4 into the mainstream desktop. I don't think Intel's mission is to kill AMD. Their primary mission is to stimulate PC demand. What that does to AMD is helpful to their business, but I don't think it's the primary objective." (AP/San Jose Mercury News 23 Aug 2001) http://www.siliconvalley.com/docs/
news/svfront/004841.htm (NewsScan Daily, 23 August 2001)

Comment: Notice that the pace of change discussed in this brief article is more than a doubling in one year. This exceeds the pace of change predicted by Moore's Law.

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Possibly Much Cheaper Flat Panel Displays

Page 73 of the 8/13/01 issue of Business Week contains a short article on a proposed new way of manufacturing flat panel displays. First, the article notes that the price of flat panel displays has halved during the past year. Then the article discusses a new manufacturing method that may decrease current prices by a factor of 10, while doubling the pixel density. The screens would be made of plastic and have a some flexibility, be lighter than current flat panels, and be more durable. It would be possible to manufacture very large screens. The article indicates that it will take three or more years to commercialize the technology.

Comment: If this technology proves to be commercially successful, it will represent a tremendous breakthrough in computer display technology as well as television displays.

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Mandatory Distance Learning Coursework

E-learning will be mandatory for Fairleigh Dickinson students beginning this fall. Students will have to take at least one online course every year. Students will interact entirely through online bulletin boards, e-mails, chat rooms, and Web conferencing; books are optional. Freshmen will take a class called Global Challenge, a course on environment, culture, society, and politics. However, the first six lessons will be conducted face-to-face to help students ease into the situation, said Professor Jason Scorza. After their first year, students will be able to choose online courses from a variety offered. (New York Times--Education Life, 5 August 2001) (Edupage, August 6, 2001)

Comment: This is a very forward looking initiative. It is clear that we are moving rapidly toward distance learning becoming a significant factor in education at all levels. Thus, it is important for students to learn how to learn in such a learning environment.

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IBM Adopts "Grid Computing" Strategy

IBM is making a major commitment to the development of "grid computing," in which any computer connected to the Internet --even a handheld device -- will have supercomputer-level processing power, as well as access to enormous databases and the use of a huge variety of application programs. The person credited with the original idea of using computer power as a electricity-like utility is the M.I.T. computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider, who suggested in a 1960 paper "Man-Machine Symbiosis" ways in which computers could augment human intelligence. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the head of IBM's grid computing initiative, predicts that "as grids go commercial use, we think everyone will jump in." Companies that have already "jumped in" -- at least with announcements -- include Sun, Microsoft, Pfizer, Ericsson, Hitachi, BMW, Glaxo, Smith-Kline, and Unilever. Rice University professor Ken Kennedy says: "The goal is that grid becomes the computing engine for the Internet in the way that the Web is the information engine. The real long term is that this becomes the problem-solving mechanism for society." (New York Times 2 Aug 2001) http://partners.nytimes.com/2001/08/
02/technology/02BLUE.html (NewsScan Daily, 2 August 2001)

Comment: Grid Computing is a very important concept. When taken together with the Internet, we can see the emergence of both powerful connectivity and powerful compute power being made available from quite modest devices -- often hand held and battery powered. Our educational system needs to think in terms of every student having such devices for communication, information storage and retrieval, and information processing. J.C.R. Licklider's 1960 paper is available [Online] Accessed 8/7/01:  http://memex.org/licklider.pdf.

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All 7th Graders in Maine to Receive Laptops

[Online]. Accessed 8/6/01: http://www.educationweek.org/
ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=42recap.h20#maine. Quoting from the Website:

After considering the idea since early last year, the Maine legislature has passed a law that will guarantee putting a portable computer in the hands of each 7th grader in the state starting in fall 2002.

But lawmakers challenged Gov. Angus S. King Jr., who proposed the program, to raise the money needed to ensure those students will continue to have a laptop with them in school until they graduate.

"We're really excited to hit the ground running," said Yellow Light Breen, the director of special projects for the Maine Department of Education. "This will make Maine the first state to move toward one-to-one access."

In the biggest education legislation of their session, the lawmakers passed a version of Gov. King's proposal to provide laptops for all schoolchildren, an idea he put forward more than a year ago.

They appropriated $30 million for the project&emdash;instead of the $50 million Mr. King had requested&emdash;and challenged the governor to raise $15 million in private money to create an endowment so the program will be self- sustaining. They also declared that schools will own the laptops, not students, as Mr. King had proposed.

"It's not their own," said Sen. Betty Lou Mitchell, a Republican and a co-chairwoman of the legislature's joint committee on education and cultural affairs. "If they need to take it home for homework, they sign it out with a library card."

In addition to buying new computers, the laptop fund will pay for training to help show teachers how best to use the wealth of new technology at their disposal.

Mr. Breen estimates that the state will buy almost 20,000 computers annually for the program. It has enough money to last five years without additional funds from private donors, he said.

The education department is still determining how the program will operate in future years. It hasn't decided, for example, whether the 7th graders will keep using the laptops purchased for them as they move through middle school and high school, or will get new ones every year while students in the earlier grades use the old machines, Mr. Breen said. The state may leave the decision to local officials, he added.

Comment: Notice that some money for teacher training is included. However, it is not clear that they realize that laptops tend to have relatively high repair costs over the years. And, it is clear that some of the details of dealing with this infusion of faculties still need to be worked out. The news item is interesting in that it is representative of a trend toward every student having computer access whenever it suites their purposes.

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Search Engines and Built-in Advertising

(USA) -- Journalists who are heavy users of search engines should beware, says columnist J.D. Lasica. It turns out that the results churned out are skewed in many cases by search engines' policies of "selling" placements to the highest bidder. "The more you pay, the higher you'll appear in the search engine results," explains Lasica. The problem arises when search engines, including Lycos, HotBot, AltaVista, LookSmart, MSN.com, Netscape, iWon and Direct Hit (owned by Ask Jeeves), fail to clearly differentiate paid listings from those identified through objective search algorithms. "This is a breach of the editorial-advertising line," says Gary Ruskin, executive director of consumer watchdog Commercial Alert. "This is like one day opening your newspaper and finding it filled with nothing but ads," says Danny Sullivan, editor of Searchenginewatch. Most of the search engines dismiss the issue with assertions that users are savvy enough to know that results aren't always what they seem, but Lasica says, "Such is the arrogant, Alice-in-Wonderland, upside-down world of Internet executives." He challenges search engine companies to return results that are "clean and unsullied. Display your paid listings, too, in a separate area, but be honest and upfront about them... Don't deceive us, and don't belittle us by saying we're too shallow to care about editorial integrity." Finally, Lasica points out that there are some honest search engines out there -- Google, Yahoo and Excite either post paid listings in a separate area or don't take them at all. (Online Journalism Review 23 Jul 2001) http://ojr.usc.edu/content/story.sfm?request=611 NEWS-ON-NEWS/The Ifra Trend Report: No. 105 (1 August 2001)

Comment: In the "good old days" the Card Catalog method of indexing was relatively standardized. Now, we have a much larger library to index (think of the Web as a Global Library). People are highly dependent on search engines. Each search engine has its own approach to prioritizing its findings in response to a search request. The brief article indicates that advertising dollars may play a role in the prioritization in some search engines. And, one can imagine a search engine being constructed with a strong built-in bias towards certain points of view. (A frightening concept!)

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Poorer Countries Get Free E-Access to Medical Journals

(USA) -- Mirroring the drug industry's newfound commitment to make medicines for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis more widely available to Third World countries, six publishing houses recently announced they will provide free electronic access to about 1,000 medical journals to medical schools, research laboratories and government health departments in poorer countries. Piloted by the World Health Organization, the program will benefit about 600 institutions, mostly in Africa, and will include training in research techniques. Institutions in countries in which the per-capita gross national product (GNP) is less than US$1,000 a year will receive the journals free. In countries where the per-capita GNP is US$1,000 to US$3,000, there would be a minimal charge. Companies do not have to agree to give away electronic subscriptions in countries where they have substantial sales now, although some have indicated they may be willing to. The medical journals will be available through an Internet portal the WHO is creating as part of the Health InterNetwork. The portal will both guarantee security and provide necessary tools, such as engines for searching the journals, said Joan Dzenowagis, the WHO project manager for the Health InterNetwork. Participating publishers include Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, Blackwell, Harcourt General, Springer-Verlag and John Wiley & Sons. (Washington Post 9 Jul 2001) http://www.washingtonpost.com/
wp-dyn/articles/A33714-2001Jul8.html (The Ifra Trend Report: No. 103. 18 July 2001)

Comment: The web can be thought of as a Global Library. The issue is, who gets access to the library? Are there important parts of the library that are not available to people because they cannot afford the cost?

The brief news item on medical journals helps to make the problem clear, and indicates one approach to dealing with part of the problem. It costs a great deal to publish medical journals. The question is, who should pay for them? In the example given above, the publishers of these journals are giving the journals away in select countries, and selling them at a reduced price in others.

Notice that the gift will be accompanied by training in the use of the facilities. This is an important aspect of the Digital Divide issue. It is not enough to provide IT hardware, connectivity, and software to people. Training (more importantly, education) is also essential.

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Online Master's Degree Coming To Arizona

Chris Herstam, member of the Arizona Board of Regents, reported that the board voted on June 29 to establish a program that allows students at Arizona Regents University to complete a master's degree in engineering online. The program integrates e-learning courses culled from all three state universities, and the regents plan to follow up the engineering degree program with similar programs in nursing and education. (Associated Press, 9 July 2001) (Edupage, July 16, 2001)

Comment: There are more and more online degree programs that are coming from well established colleges and universities. Each new announcement, such as the one given above, lends credibility to the online degree. Notice that the Arizona program draws upon coursework from "all three state universities." Online education is leading to an increased level of collaboration among institutions that -- in some sense -- compete with each other.

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One Microcomputer per 2.3 Students in South Dakota

A July 3, 2001 press release from the State of South Dakota indicated that the state had funded the purchase of 16,040 microcomputers to be given to schools in time for use this fall. When added to the currently installed base, this will produce an average of one microcomputer per 2.3 students. The current networking infrastructure within the state and the schools will allow 70-percent of these machines to be online at any one time.

In this bulk purchase, Gateway microcomputers with monitors, CD-ROM, Floppy drive, and connectivity cost $510 each. Apple Imac 400 Indigo units (roughly comparably equipped, but without a floppy drive) cost $474 apiece.

Educators in Oregon might ask why the Oregon Legislature has been unwilling and/or unable to directly help fund microcomputers. They may also wonder why Oregon students should have less than half as good of computer access as students in South Dakota.

The press release is available [Accessed 7/16/01] http://www.distance-educator.com/dn2.phtml?id=4481.

Comment: Note the prices for these machines!

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Crackdown on Pirated Software in Schools

Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a coalition of industry players, are including schools as part of their continuing efforts to smoke out pirated software. Recent targets have included the school districts of Philadelphia, where 264 schools are auditing all copies of software currently in use, and San Jose, where the BSA demanded $560,000 in reparations for between 50 and 100 illegal software copies. Although that fine was negotiated down to only $50,000, critics say Microsoft and the BSA have confused their priorities. Many of the school districts under siege barely have enough money to fund basic needs--Philadelphia, for example, has warned that it will not be able to pay its staff next year without outside help--let alone the cost of auditing entire IT departments and paying punitive damages. Microsoft and the BSA claim that they are treating schools no differently from how they would treat any other software pirate; in addition, as even some educators have pointed out, Microsoft and its allies have provided schools with assistance in developing systems to detect and prevent software piracy. (Salon.com, 10 July 2001) (Edupage, July 11, 2001)

Comment: The use of pirated software in education has been a serious and continuing problem. Those doing the pirating are able to make up all kinds of "good reasons or justifications" for their actions. Many others are using the software and are not aware that it is pirated.

Some schools and school districts do an excellent job of maintaining careful control over the software that is used on their computers. They consider that doing so is part of the cost of having computers available for student and staff use. Moreover, it helps to send a message to both students and staff that this is an important legal issue, and that the school or school district intends to be legal in its use of software.

The brief article suggests that some school districts are violating software copyright laws, and that they face significant fines.

Readers of this brief news article and comment may want to ask themselves: Is my school following high standards of software legality?

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Increasing Bandwidth of Fiber Optics

Fiber-optic lines can handle up to 100 terabits of data per second, enough to transmit 2 billion phone calls or 20 billion one-page e-mails, reported scientists at Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories. That speed is far faster than the current rate of fiber optic transmission and 10 times faster than the top speed previously achieved in laboratory experiments. Previous attempts to identify the maximum speed possible on fiber-optic systems have been stymied by the number of variables in the technology, which depends on the behavior of light and the physical properties of glass. However, the Bell Laboratories scientists built a model of a fiber-optic system by using quantum physics and information theory. The scientists say their conclusions prove that fiber optics will be more than able to handle high-bandwidth technologies. "The fact that you know networks can be scaled in this way means optical fiber is a good way to grow your system," said physicist Partha Mitra, who led the Bell Laboratories research team. (InformationWeek.com, 28 June 2001) (Edupage, July 6, 2001)

Comment: The human mind is not well suited to understand numbers like 100 terabits, or 100, 000,000,000, 000 bits. Thus, we use analogies, such as "2 billion phone calls. Even then, such a large number does not have much meaning to most people. Roughly speaking, if all of the phones in the world were simultaneously being used in voice communication, this would generate somewhat less than 100 terabits per second of data.

It is fairly common for a school to be served by a T1 line that has a bandwidth of approximately 1.5 million bits per second. This allows quite a few microcomputers in a school to be simultaneously connected to the Internet and to have fairly decent response time.

Note that 100 terabits is about 67 million times a T1 line. This is enough bandwidth to give every student, teacher, and other staff members in our K-12 school system an individual T1 line. Or, as noted in the article, it is a lot of bandwidth.

Notice the "10 times faster" statement in the article. Wow -- a gain by a factor of 10 through one set of improvements in the technology! We have come to take such rates of progress in IT as commonplace. Our educational system is struggling to learn to make use of the computer facilities and the connectivity currently available in schools. The continued rapid pace of improvement in the technology is far exceeding our growth in understanding on how to make effective use of the technology in education.

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