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Mark Twain once said that “an inventor is a poet–a true poet–and nothing in any degree less than a high order of poet.”

Michele Alperin, writing in the business newspaper US 1, gives us a glimpse into the poetic mind of the inventor with her profile of Michael Hecht in the current issue.

Hecht, a professor of chemistry at Princeton who has developed a novel way to screen for potential Alzheimer’s drugs, will join other innovators Tuesday, Feb. 27, at an innovation forum that is sponsored by Princeton’s Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.

What kind of mindset best suits an innovator? “You have to be prepared to see the unexpected,” Hecht told Alperin. “You have to have an educated and trained mind, but have to be open-minded enough that when something bizarre comes up, you can see it.”

In addition to explaining Hecht’s research in protein design, the US 1 profile offers some interesting biographical background. Before going to MIT for graduate school, for example, Hecht drove a taxi around New York City for several months. Who knew?

The public is invited to the Tuesday event, which will feature about a dozen emerging technologies from the laboratories of Princeton, including CoBlitz, which promises to revolutionize the distribution of rich media (videos, sofware, etc.) on the web.

You can read the entire Hecht profile here.

 

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The tradition of peer-reviewed journals in the sciences has been much in the news recently, as online publishing and communally edited wikis threaten traditional forms of publishing.

A panel of distinguished researchers debated the future of the peer-reviewed journal recently on a lively panel organized by Calit2‘s Information Theory and Applications Center.

One of the panelists was H. Vincent Poor, dean of the school of engineering at Princeton and editor in chief of the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. According to Poor, reports of the demise of the peer-review process are premature. “I don’t think we want to ever completely dispense with careful peer review,” said Poor, remarking that there is no substitute for deliberate and thoughtful review by respected experts.

As for archiving, Poor advises that we make a distinction between what is eternal and what is ephemeral. “If If we think what we are doing is eternal we should put it in a hard copy,” he said. “If we think it is ephemeral, electronic is probably good enough.”

It may seem surprising to hear a digital maven come down on the side of paper but Poor makes a compelling argument, noting that ever-evolving operating systems mean that computer files just a few decades old are already inscrutable. “It’s hard to beat the archival nature of high-quality hard copy,” Poor said. “Just look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are 2,000 years old and we can still read them.” He noted, however, that technological innovation might one day bring us a trustworthy electronic archive system.

You can contemplate the archivability of webcasts while viewing the entire conversation of the Calit2 panel here (it is the first video on the page).

 

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Electronic voting machines are back in the news again, and not in a good way.

A front-page piece in yesterday’s Star-Ledger quotes Princeton’s Andrew Appel as being highly skeptical of the security of the Sequoia voting machines used widely in the state of New Jersey.

Last month Appel bought five Sequoia machines for a total of $82 from a government auction Web site — www.GovDeals.com, where one can also bid on surplus coffins, locomotives and WWI-era cannons, according to Star-Ledger reporter Kevin Coughlin.

Appel says that the machines are almost identical to machines that New Jersey’s Essex County bought for $8,000 apiece two years ago. Alex Halderman and Ariel Feldman — the same graduate students at Princeton who helped demonstrate that Diebold’s electronic voting machines could be infected with malicious software — have begun to analyze the Sequoia code.

“We can take a version of Sequoia’s software program and modify it to do something different – like appear to count votes, but really move them from one candidate to another,” Appel told Coughlin. “And it can be programmed to do that only on Tuesdays in November.” At any other time, he said, it couldn’t be detected.

Today’s Star-Ledger features a follow-up story on a legal notice filed Friday claiming that 10,000 Sequoia AVC Advantage machines were never certified by the state of New Jersey, as required by law. Appel filed an affadavit in the case. For more follow-ups on Appel’s adventures with the Sequoias, stay tuned to Ed Felten’s blog, Freedom to Tinker. Felten will be giving a talk next week, Feb. 20, at the Princeton Public Library on his research on computer security and privacy.

Photo by Alex Halderman

 

Our computers and digital devices keep getting smaller even while growing increasingly more robust. By comparison, the batteries that power them remain stubbornly unwieldy (and in some cases even prone to exploding).

This is one reason that Craig Arnold‘s research is especially fascinating. One of the aims of Arnold’s research is to create tiny batteries and other energy storage devices that can be implanted in the body or used to power featherweight sensors.

Arnold, an assistant professor in Princeton’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering (which, in case you missed the news, was recently ranked No. 1 in the nation in a scholarly index), uses a laser direct-write printer to lay down energy-storing patterns with a lithium “ink.”

But that is not all Arnold can do with laser direct-write printing. Check out the image on this blog entry. It is a little faint, but you should be able to see that Arnold printed the Princeton University shield, using fluorescent E. coli bacteria as “ink,” onto a glass slide. How cool is that?

The current issue of the Materials Research Society Bulletin, which Arnold guest-edited with Alberto Piqué, notes

that laser direct-write printing can be used to make semiconductors, to engineer tissue, to create cell-based sensors, or to develop pharmaceuticals.

In the biology arena, Arnold is collaborating with synthetic biology pioneer Ron Weiss, who is working to create “bio-bricks” — bits of DNA-powered circuits — that are modular and that could one day be fitted together to manufacture such miracles as new pancreatic cells for people with diabetes or special patches that mend broken spinal cords.

The entire MRS Bulletin issue on laser direct-write processing can be purchased online. You can also read more about Arnold’s battery research in last week’s Princeton Alumni Weekly.

 

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The story of how Princeton’s undergraduate team made it to the fiercely competitive DARPA Grand Challenge finals in 2005 is worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. Princeton’s self-driving truck didn’t win (a software glitch did them in) but their heroic efforts drew media coverage and acclaim.

Now the underdog team is back at it again, preparing to compete in DARPA’s newest challenge, which will play out in an urban landscape as opposed to last year’s course through the desert.

The team has just taken delivery of a 2005 Escape donated by Ford and is busy experimenting with stereo vision, automotive radar, and binocular image techniques to help the vehicle self-navigate through a tricky urban course. More than a half-dozen students worked nonstop over intersession break, getting started making the electrical and mechanical modifications that will allow the car to drive itself. “Since the car is a hybrid it is already ‘drive-by-wire,'” team member Gordon Franken told EQN. “This means that the primary systems — steering, brakes and throttle — are all electronically controlled, making it easy for us to fast-track the necessary modifications.”

Today’s Daily Princetonian has a front-page piece on PAVE (short for Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering) and you can follow the team’s exploits on their website. Be sure to check out their hilarious (and informative) videos. Princeton alums in town for Alumni Day Feb. 24 will get an in-depth look at the celebrated 2005 competition and the challenges that lie ahead for the PAVE team.

 

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Internet content-delivery services powerhouse Akamai has just paid $177 million in stock to acquire Netli, which produces a custom protocol that smooths out communications between Internet servers.

“We discovered that they had some really cool stuff, and it’s very complementary to what we’re doing,” Akamai’s chief scientist Tom Leighton told Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe.

Leighton, who graduated from Princeton Engineering in 1978 and who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, told Bray that combining the two technologies will allow Akamai to improve network performance. (Another Princeton Engineering graduate, Beatriz Infante, sits on the board of Netli.)

Leighton recently made some interesting observations about the recent Tawain earthquake and how Akamai works around communications bottlenecks that occur during the wake of a disaster. You can read those comments here.

 

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On Friday, an international panel representing more than 1,000 scientists pronounced as “unequivocal” the evidence that humans have contributed to global warming.

The odds are great that greenhouse pollution has caused much of the warming over the past 50 years, according to the scientists’ report, and temperature increases are very likely to accelerate in the future.

But what should be done? In a recent report, Greenwire highlights the work of Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala. The duo, you may recall, played a supporting role in Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, with Gore hailing their work as an important way to address climate change.

Socolow and Pacala first introduced their “wedges” concept — essentially a toolkit of energy technologies and lifestyle changes that can be mixed and matched to collectively reduce carbon emissions — in the journal Science back in 2004.

“Critics of the wedges warn they are an over-simplified academic exercise unconstrained by price tags or real-world politics,” writes Greenwire senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn. “But a growing number of politicians, teachers, lawyers, industry lobbyists and environmentalists consider the concept a great way to identify and articulate their climate strategies.”

You can add “energy executives” to Samuelsohn’s list of wedge admirers. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, applauded the wedge concept in a

recent talk.

Next week, Socolow and Pacala conduct a town hall meeting at the AAAS annual meeting in San Francisco. Teachers can download a “Stabilization Wedges Game” for their classrooms here.

 

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The South Carolina newspaper The State recently mentioned The Princeton Laptop Orchestra in a review of a concert devoted to pieces by electronic music guru Paul Lansky. The reviewer refers to Princeton as the home of the “geek-revered” Laptop Orchestra (aka PLOrk). Geek or not, you can hear some of PLOrk’s much-celebrated music here.

 

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What skills will the engineer of the future need?

Leah Jamieson, a keynote speaker at DesignCon 2007 this week, said that in addition to imparting superb technical skills, engineering schools must reward ingenuity and flexibility and give students opportunities to develop leadership and business skills.

Jamieson, who received her doctorate from Princeton Engineering in 1977 and who is the dean of engineering at Purdue, said that the current “half life” of an engineer’s education — by which she means the point at which half of what an engineer has learned is obsolete — may be as little as five years.

“In many ways, the world is changing,” said Jamieson. “Are our graduates going to have the skills they need over the next 40 years?” Jamieson’s comments reflect the mission of Princeton’s Center for Innovation in Engineering Education (Jamieson sits on CIEE’s advisory council).

At DesignCon, Jamieson, who is president of IEEE this year, was given the International Engineering Consortium Fellow Award. As an IEC fellow, she is in good company: other fellows include Gordon Moore, Jack Kilby, and David Packard.

Both EETimes and EDN covered Jamieson’s address. View Jamieson’s whole speech via streaming video on the DesignCon website. You can also read a roundtable discussion on engineering education featuring Jamieson, Michigan’s David Munson and Princeton’s H. Vincent Poor (all three Princeton Engineering Ph.D.s who were named deans of engineering this year).

 

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Matt Blumberg, CEO of the email marketing company Return Path, writes in his blog about David Billington’s new book, The Innovators: The Engineering Pioneers Who Made America Modern.

“It feels at many points in the book that you could insert some different names and dates and be reading a history of the Internet or information age,” writes Blumberg, who graduated from Princeton in 1992 and who says that Billington was his favorite teacher and his senior thesis advisor.

Billington talks about the book, which he wrote with his son, in this recent Q&A. Read Blumberg’s entire OnlyOnce blog entry here.

 
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