TechWatch: Scientist Sells Secrets to Chinese; TiVo Sells Pizza to You

A Virginia scientist has plead guilty to selling rocketry technology secrets to the Communist regime in China, while Domino's has begun selling its Internet-ordered pizzas over TiVo set-top boxes.

The art of the sale is intrinsic to the American Dream as we know it; it's the foundation of entrepreneurship. But like many an American phenomenon - pro baseball, the SEC, Britney - the art of the sale is occasionally perverted to amusing and dangerous effect.

So it was Monday, when a Virginia-based scientist pleaded guilty to two odious crimes of salesmanship. Not only did Quan-Sheng Shu, 68, admit to one of the most time-worn and hackneyed technological crimes - selling rocketry secrets to a Communist regime - but he also admitted to bribing the same Chinese officials into giving his company a lucrative business contract. Chinese-born Shu is a naturalized citizen of the United States and President of AMAC International, a tech firm based in Newport News, VA. Shu is guilty of violating the Arms Control Act and committing bribery. The U.S. currently maintains an arms embargo on China.

So what was he selling? Shu is an expert on cryogenics, and was ferrying technological information about hydrogen technology to help the Chinese develop hydrogen-propelled rockets. The Chinese space program has been expanding in recent months, and its administrators are building a new launch facility in the country's southern islands designed to send liquid-propelled rockets into space. China's first astronauts, or taikonauts, completed that country's first space-walk in September and are now touring the country's provinces as national heroes.

When Shu is sentenced on April 6, he will face a maximum of about 25 years in prison, as well as fines in the neighborhood of $25 million. While in prison, he won't be able to avail himself of this week's other sales oddity: the ability to use his TiVo to find the nearest Domino's [DPZ] pizza joint, and order a pie for delivery.

This marvel of modern Internet chicanery was announced Monday, and will be available to all TiVo customers with a broadband-connected TiVo set-top box, an active subscription and a Domino's nearby. It's a way for TiVo to differentiate itself amidst competition from cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast, who sell their own DVR offerings. The option to order is now under TiVo's "Music, Photos, Products & More" menu, presumably under the "More" heading. Apparently there is no separate menu for "Silly Crap TiVo Need Not Do."

And yet, there may soon be. In press materials announcing the TiVo/Domino's partnership, TiVo executives describe the pizza functionality as a mere "first step" in what they call a "future of consumer interactions." In a somewhat foreboding statement, VP of Precision and Print Marketing at Domino's Rob Weisberg said in a statement, "This is the first time in history that the on-demand generation will be able to fully experience couch commerce by ordering pizza directly through their television set."

They're correct about the "first step" analogy; the feature is clearly only in its incipience, since you can't pay by credit card as with Domino's website, but instead must give the delivery person cash. Ordering also requires a free account with Dominos.com, and orders are limited to $100 - meaning you can forget about that totally awesome Sex and the City pizza party you were going to throw. Perhaps someday.

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