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DayVectors

apr 2006 / last mod dec 2014 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: mining infrastructure, a short history of life, welcome to 2006, universal vaccines against flu, cancer vaccines, recycling PCs, 747 homestead, Fibonacci poems, COSMIC satellites, paranoid style, lawn GM, green tags, urban gaming, mandarin, panda diplomacy, cosmic rays versus astronauts, methane hydrates, microdrives, and getting scammed by ISPs.

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[FRI 28 APR 06] INFRASTRUCTURE -- MINING (2)
[THU 27 APR 06] UNIVERSAL VACCINES FOR FLU / CANCER VACCINES
[WED 26 APR 06] RECYCLE YOUR PC / HOME SWEET BOEING
[TUE 25 APR 06] FIB FAD
[MON 24 APR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (6)
[FRI 21 APR 06] INFRASTRUCTURE -- MINING (1)
[THU 20 APR 06] COSMIC IN ORBIT
[WED 19 APR 06] PARANOID STYLE
[TUE 18 APR 06] GM ON THE HOME TURF / GREEN TAG GAME
[MON 17 APR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (5)
[FRI 14 APR 06] A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (12)
[THU 13 APR 06] URBAN GAMES
[WED 12 APR 06] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[TUE 11 APR 06] LEARN MANDARIN NOW / DANGER PANDAS
[MON 10 APR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (4)
[FRI 07 APR 06] A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (11)
[THU 06 APR 06] IMPLANTABLE RFID
[WED 05 APR 06] COSMIC RAY MENACE
[TUE 04 APR 06] METHANE HYDRATES
[MON 03 APR 06] MICRODRIVES / LUNARPAGES SCAM / ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 28 APR 06] INFRASTRUCTURE -- MINING (2)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- MINING (2): While mining is stereotypically associated with shafts and tunnels, everyone also knows about open pit and strip mines, and their bad reputation for massive violation of the earth. Such "surface mines" are actually far more than norm than underground mines: about 85% of the minerals extracted in the US come from surface mines.

The open pit mine involves digging a huge hole in the ground, and it is best suited for exploiting veins of valuable minerals that plunge deep into the ground through hard rock. Most iron and copper is obtained from open pit mines. Strip mines, also known as "open cast" mines, involve digging up a long strip of ground, pulling out the minerals, then digging the next strip and using the "spoils" to fill up the first. A strip mine is best suited to exploiting "bedded" sedimentary deposits that lie flat over a wide area at a shallow depth underground. Coal and some soft minerals like phosphates are extracted via strip mines.

* The scale of open-pit mines can be mind-boggling. They have a concentric appearance, with a set of levels separated by steps. Each step consists of a flat terrace or "bench" between steep walls or faces about 15 meters (50 feet) high. The benches help stabilize the mine, and provide a working surface for the mine crews. Haulage roads run down diagonally from bench to bench. A single road may spiral around the pit; in some cases, where the pit faces hard rock that won't be excavated further, the road will switch back and forth on the other side of the pit. If there's room, twin roads may be built to allow empty dump trucks to drive down while full ones drive back up.

open-pit copper mine, Utah

Digging down into the open-pit mine begins by widening the benches, starting from the top, a procedure called a "pushback". The process is similar to that used in underground mines, involving drilling, blasting, and mucking the debris, but the scale is much greater -- with big drill holes, big charges, and big machinery, including oversized power shovels, front-end loaders, and dump trucks. The dump trucks carry ten times the load of a conventional dump truck and are far too large to drive on a normal public road. They are generally hauled to the site in pieces and assembled there. Ore is hauled off by train or, in some cases, conveyor belts of once again astounding scale, while the spoils are piled up in artificial mountains.

Given the size of an open-pit mine, a single pushback is not a trivial operation: it can take years, even a decade or more. The operation is capital intensive and so work generally goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

* While traditional explosives may still be used in underground mining, the explosive of choice for surface mining is a slurry of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO). ANFO is cheap, powerful, safe to handle, and can be pumped down boreholes. As terrorists know, ordinary ammonium nitrate fertilizer can be used to make ANFO, though fertilizer is generally not pure enough to work properly as an explosive unless additives are introduced.

Like any sensible bulk explosive, ANFO requires a blasting cap to set it off. Blasting caps are usually activated electrically, using wires connected to a detonator system. As a safety measure, the wire is never reused, and it tends to litter up mining sites. The stereotype of a plunger-type detonator is way out of date: nowdays, an electronic detonator is used, with the blast set off by punching the appropriate buttons. The detonator contains a capacitor that stores an electric charge that's dumped to the blasting caps.

* While strip mines would seem to be neater than open-pit mines, they tend to be ten to a hundred times larger in terms of the ground area torn up, and environmentalists claim that the restoration of the land after reclamation is slow and inadequate. In the 1970s, strip mine operators decided that their problem was partly semantic -- the term "strip" seemed to upset people -- and so they came up with the name "open-cast" instead. It has only partly caught on.

Strip mining usually does not require blasting, since the earth is often soft enough to be removed directly by machinery. The first stage of the work is known as "grubbing", which involves removing the topsoil and vegetation. Then the "overburden" -- the remaining earth blocking access to the coal or mineral layer -- has to be dug out, with the material dumped into the adjacent, exhausted strip. Finally the paydirt is removed.

Different tools may be used on different layers. Soft layers can be removed with a "bucket wheel excavator", which is just what it sounds like: a machine with a spinning wheel on a moveable boom, the wheel being fitted with set of buckets that tear up the earth. The dirt is hauled away on a set of conveyors. Harder layers may require a big shovel, or a "dragline" -- something like a "dry-land dredge", and the biggest machine on land.

A dragline features a control cab the size of a modest hotel and a boom the length of several athletic fields, carrying a "bucket" that could easily accommodate two buses. The bucket is teflon-coated to make it easier to dump its load; its big teeth take a lot of abuse and have to be replaced on a regular basis. The bucket is hauled out to the end of the boom, dropped skillfully to plunge into the earth, then dragged back to the cab, to be lifted up and emptied into a dump truck.

dragline

The dragline moves backwards as it digs up the strips, but it doesn't use tracks. Instead it has long feet or "shoes" on each side that lift up the cab, which then slides backwards a bit, lubricated by a flow of water. The dragline is powered by a heavy-duty electrical cable, with the power running to 10,000 to 25,000 volts AC. This power doesn't actually drive the dragline directly, instead being converted to DC inside the machine for use by its systems. A dragline is so enormous that even pictures of workers walking around one like ants around a crate still fails to give a real sense of its scale.

In the US, by law the land in the spent strip has to be restored to its original contour, which means moving a lot of dirt around. Topsoil has to be laid down, since plants don't grow well in dirt dug up from underground, though the topsoil can be usually obtained from the grubbing of another strip. Mulching, fertilizer, and seeding follows. It can take months to years to deal with one strip; as with open-pit mines, the work is usually continuous. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 27 APR 06] UNIVERSAL VACCINES FOR FLU / CANCER VACCINES

* UNIVERSAL VACCINES FOR FLU: As discussed by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("A One-Size-Fits-All Flu Vaccine?" by Jocelyn Kaiser, 21 April 2006), the furor over the H5N1 "bird flu" influenza strain is continuing around the world. While there's some doubt that H5N1 will scythe through human populations as it has through bird populations, nobody feels too complacent about the threat. The big problem with influenza is that it is so highly mutable, quickly modifying its coat proteins to emerge as new strains that could cause a worldwide human pandemic.

It's impossible to develop a flu vaccine that could give certain protection against some new, unknown, deadly strain -- or at least that's been the conventional wisdom. Now several researchers are working on "universal vaccines" for flu that can confer long-term immunity. Although it's a new frontier in biomedicine, there is some hope that it's possible, since epidemiological studies show that victims of one flu pandemic have a clearly higher, if not complete, resistance to a second flu pandemic.

Influenza strains are generally characterized by two coat proteins: "hemagglutinin (HA)", which the virus uses to bind to target cells, and "neuramidase (NA)", which the virus uses to break out of target cells after infecting them. The H5N1 designation for the bird flu virus gives the HA and NA strains. Traditional influenza viruses involve breeding virus in eggs and then killing the virus. Injecting the killed virus sets up an immune response in the host, usually involving the synthesis of antibodies to HA.

HA and NA change rapidly, which is why flu vaccines have always been short-term solutions. One approach to making a universal vaccine against flu is to create an immune response to "conserved" protein components of the flu virus that don't mutate rapidly. Another approach is to develop a vaccine that can target a wide range of HAs. Nobody's sure that either approach will ever create a vaccine as effective against a flu strain as a vaccine tailored for that strain, but even a moderately effective universal vaccine could save many lives if a dangerous new flu strain emerged abruptly out of nowhere.

One conserved flu protein that's getting attention is known as "M2", which forms an ion channel port in the viral membrane. Since the late 1990s, a team under Walter Fiers at the University of Ghent in Belgium has been working on vaccines that target M2 and have shown fair effectiveness in trials using mice. There are concerns of just how conserved M2 really is, but tests run by a group under Walter Gerhard at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, show that it doesn't mutate at anywhere near the rate of HA or NA.

There is some skepticism over the prospects of M2-based flu vaccines. They didn't keep the mice in the trials from getting sick, since the vaccines set up a response to flu-infected cells instead of flu viruses themselves. However, this does slow down the spread of the infection, it did improve the survival rate of the mice. Several companies are actively pursuing development along this path, though clinical trials haven't begun yet.

Another conserved flu protein being investigated as a vaccine target is "nucleoprotein (NP)", which is found inside the virus. Work to develop NP-based universal flu vaccines has not focused on creating an antibody response, instead attempting to provoke "cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL)". Efforts to build such vaccines go back over a decade, with work generally focused on using DNA encoding NP, instead of NP itself, to stimulate the immune system -- an approach that usually generates a stronger immune response, and which is also much easier to mass-produce than a traditional flu virus since the DNA can be manufactured in genetically modified cells. Tests of a DNA vaccine on mice -- with the DNA delivered using nonreplicating adenoviruses -- have shown some promise.

Once again, however, NP-based flu vaccines can't prevent the victim from getting sick, since they only target cells that have already been infected. Advocates say that a partially effective vaccine is vastly better than none at all, and can provide a stopgap until a strain-specific vaccine is produced. Researchers are pursuing the concept further, working on vaccines that target both M2 and NP, and are considering HA-based vaccines that also target M2 and NP as "adjuvants" that could broaden the effectiveness of the vaccine.

An example of the alternate approach to a universal vaccine, attempting to target a wider range of HA proteins, is already on the market. A company named MedImmune has been selling a nasal mist vaccine named "FluMist" since 2003. It's based on an attenuated live virus instead of killed virus, and MedImmune asserts it will work on a range of viral strains.

The downside is that attenuated vaccines have a small but finite chance of becoming dangerous again. A group of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, working with the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has developed and performed tests on a vaccine based on a nonreplicating adenovirus carrying HA DNA. A commercial startup named PowerMed is also working on an HA-based DNA vaccine, but it using gold-covered nanoparticles instead of adenoviruses as a delivery vehicle, claiming that the nanoparticle approach has fewer hazards. The range of approaches towards a universal flu vaccine can seem dizzying, but it does give researchers working in the field a sense that their goal is within reach. They may not be able to stop flu for good, but they think they may be able to seriously hobble it.

* CANCER VACCINES: The mechanisms that cause cancers are elaborate and present an immense challenge to researchers searching for a cure, but advances are being made. According to an article in US NEWS & WORLD REPORT ("Sticking It To Cancer" by Josh Fishmann, 3 April 2006), two strains of human papilloma virus (HPV) cause 70% of all cervical cancers, and now a vaccine is available that can provide solid protection against both strains. There has also been progress in "therapeutic" vaccines that can direct the body's immune system to fight cancers.

The HPV vaccine is named "Gardasil" and was developed by pharmaceutical giant Merck. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is evaluating the vaccine and the consensus is that it will be approved. A similar vaccine, developed by Glaxo Smith Kline in Europe and named Cervarix, has already been approved across the Atlantic and is being evaluated by the FDA here.

Cervical cancers can be caused by 15 different viruses, with the two HPV strains dealt with by Gardasil and Cervarix at the top of the list. HPV is a very common virus, transmitted by even very casual sexual contact. Most of the time the body can deal with it, but it can infect basal skin cells -- the cells making up the bottom layer of the skin -- and hang on, gradually causing lesions that can result in a cancer 13 years or more after infection. Most women who contract HPV do so in their teens and early 20s, but only develop cervical cancer in their 30s or later.

Gardasil provides protection against the particularly hazardous strains of HPV 16 and HPV 18. It also protects against two other strains that can cause genital warts in males and basically harmless lesions in females that lead to false alarms. The vaccine is made up of HPV coat proteins, allowing it to provoke the immune system but not cause an infection. The level of antibodies against HPV climbs to a height six months after vaccination, with that level maintained for at least three years. Trials show the vaccine to be highly effective, with no HPV lesions in the 6,000 women who were administered the vaccine, but 21 cases of HPV lesions in the women in the control group. Cervarix is similar to Gardasil, but it only protects against HPV 16 and HPV 18; however, it includes a booster chemical that provokes a very strong immune response.

Optimism for the new HPV vaccines is running very high. To be sure, biomedicine is a tricky business; use of the vaccine will have to be monitored for decades to ensure that it really does work and has no bad side effects.

* Using vaccines to help patients with cancers is not as far advanced. Trials have been performed with a "therapeutic vaccine" against prostate cancer named Provenge from Dendreon, a Seattle-based biomedical firm. Provenge is manufactured by taking immune system "targeting" cells from the victim, provoking them with prostate cancer proteins, and then administering the vaccine to the patient. It is not a miracle cure: trials show that the average increase in survival is only 4.5 months. However, it doesn't have the nasty side effects of chemotherapy, and no other method gives more than an additional 2.5 months.

A company named Therion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working on a vaccine named "Panvac VF" that targets pancreatic cancer. The vaccine consists of a benign virus that has been seeded with pancreatic cancer genes; once administered, it provokes the immune system to attack the cancer cells.

Critics have suggested that the optimistic results obtained with such anti-cancer vaccines are due to skewed results from small scale trials and that the treatment has no particular merit. Both sides agree that further tests need to be done, with the proponents believing that it will vindicate their approach. Says one researcher: "Clearly, we're not there yet, but I hope and I think that we're getting closer."

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[WED 26 APR 06] RECYCLE YOUR PC / HOME SWEET BOEING

* RECYCLE YOUR PC: This March, according to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("HP Wants Your Old PCs Back" by Lorraine Woellert, 10 April 2006), Washington State governor Christine Gregoire signed a "take-back" law that requires electronics companies to foot the bill for recycling their equipment. The law was heavily promoted by an unlikely advocate: electronics giant Hewlett-Packard.

In fact, HP has been proving downright aggressive in its campaign to deal with "e-waste", as the clutter of old PCs, TVs, and other discarded electronic gear is known. The company backed a pioneering e-waste law in Maine that was passed in 2004, and is involved in similar legislation efforts in dozens of states. Company officials say that the take-back laws are far more effective than point-of-sale taxes that attempt to recover recycling costs, and avoid the prospect that the gear will be shipped overseas to be rendered down in environmentally unsound ways.

Not too surprisingly, HP does have a vested interest in the matter. The company has created an extensive recycling infrastructure to reduce disposal costs, improve production costs, and obtain resalable products for secondary markets. The HP recycling organization even performs "asset management", for example making sure that data on old computing machinery is preserved or disposed of as needed. The new take-back regime suits HP just fine, and other big electronics firms are beginning to fall in line.

One exception is the TV manufacturing industry. With the introduction of flat panel and digital TVs, they are faced with an avalanche as consumers discard their old analog TVs. Panasonic, Sony, and Philips have been pushing instead for point-of-sale taxes to handle recycling. In a "take-back" scheme, the TV manufacturers would be liable for all TVs, no matter how old they were. IBM and particularly Apple Corp have been backing the TV manufacturers, and environmentalists have been harshly critical of Apple. Company officials insist that their green credentials are good, but Apple still has a lot of ground to cover before it catches up with HP's lead.

* HOME SWEET BOEING: In other recycling news, according to a BBC WORLD Online article, a California woman named Francie Rehwald, whose family owns one of the state's biggest Mercedes-Benz dealerships, is now directing the construction of a new family home on a 22 hectare (55 acre) plot in the Malibu Hills that will be unarguably unique in completion: its structure is leveraged off major assemblies of a scrapped Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Rehwald suggested to the architect that she wanted a house that was eco-friendly, and have an appearance curvy and feminine. Few structures are more curvy and feminine in appearance than a jetliner, and so the architect, David Hertz, replied: "Let's use a 747!"

The house will not be simply a parked 747 fuselage, a concept that might work well enough for a diner in a tacky resort area but not for a high-class house. The wings of the jumbo jet will be used as roofs for a more conventional house structure, The nose will become a meditation temple, while the 747's distinctive upper deck will become a loft. The aircraft was obtained from a "boneyard" in California for $100,000 USD, though in completion the cost of the house is likely to run to several million.

Hertz originally thought of just building the roofs of the home with the jetliner wings, since they have plenty of area and are more than structurally strong enough for the task. He then figured it would make even more sense -- from the point of view of cost, liveability, and environment -- to simply buy an entire jetliner for the job: "The recycling of the 4.5 million parts of this 'big aluminium can' is seen as an extreme example of sustainable reuse and appropriation. American consumers and industry throw away enough aluminium in a year to rebuild our entire aeroplane commercial fleet every three months."

Of course, the authorities had to sign off on permits for the idea, and did so with few objections -- though they did insist that the aircraft elements be marked to make it clear to aerial searchers that they had not spotted an airliner that had crashed.

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[TUE 25 APR 06] FIB FAD

* FIB FAD: The Japanese-based form of blank verse known as "haiku", consisting of three lines of prose with five syllables in the first line. seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line, is fairly well known. Now, according to a NEW YORK TIMES article cited on CNET News ("Fibonacci Poems Multiply On The Web" by Motoko Rich, 14 April), Gregory K. Pincus, a 41-year-old Los Angeles scriptwriter and aspiring writer of children's books, has come up with a new concept for poetry somewhat along the same lines -- or, as the author of the TIMES article put it:

   Blogs 
   spread 
   gossip 
   and rumor. 
   But how about a 
   rare, geeky form of poetry? 

Pincus suggested, partly as a joke, to write poems with the number of syllables given by the Fibonacci sequence, which goes as follows:

   1
   1
   2
   3
   5
   8
  13
  21
  34
  ...

-- and so on. The principle is that each line is the sum of the two lines before it; the scheme demonstrates exponential growth. Pincus's Fibonacci poems, or just "Fibs" for short, have six lines and the syllable pattern:

   1
   1
   2
   3
   5
   8

-- or, as he wrote:

   One
   small,
   precise,
   poetic,
   spiraling mixture:
   math plus poetry yields the Fib.

They can go on through following numbers in the sequence, but such long sentences are cumbersome. Pincus suggested the concept in his blog on children's literature a few weeks ago, leading to a few dozen submissions. Then somebody on the popular Slashdot.org website -- "News For Nerds / Stuff That Matters" -- linked to it and the idea took off. Pincus notes with amusement that more than a thousand Fibs have been written since the beginning of April:

   The
   art
   of speech
   discovers
   possibilities
   at the heart of our ignorance

   Lots
   of
   presents
   just for me.
   Mistletoe and wine
   wrapped underneath the Christmas tree. 

Not all hard core poetry buffs are impressed, one writing that she found the concept "uninteresting". But then she added:

   So
   you
   no doubt
   will not find
   it interesting
   to talk to me about this stuff. 

* On that note, I have to add, if just for a place to keep them, a set of joke haikus or "jokus" that I put together that will almost certainly go right past anybody who's not familiar with Looney Toons:

   Is it duck season?
   Or wabbit season?  Daffy
   gets nailed either way!

   Coyote sets traps.
   Will he catch a Roadrunner?
   Falls off cliff again!

   When the label says:
   "ACME: The Name You Can Trust!"
   -- read:  BUYER BEWARE.

   "Abraca-pocus!"
   Count Dracula is no match
   for smartass bunnies.

   Marvin the Martian
   is sure he will conquer Earth.
   In your dreams, space runt!
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[MON 24 APR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (6)

* WELCOME TO 2006 (6): To finish up this mini-series, suppose I take my visitor from 1950 around the house and town. She might find much that still looks familiar, though there would be surprises: the CD players, the DVD players -- serious home movies on the cheap, an impossibility in 1950 -- my digital cameras -- hundreds of shots and no film. She might be startled to notice that the batteries generally look much the same as they always did.

The style of the cars would seem alien, but the technology hasn't changed that much -- electronic ignition systems and various bells and whistles being the biggest changes, hybrids not having much of an impact just yet. Traffic lights are nothing new, except for using LED arrays instead of incandescent bulbs. If she came back in a few years, she might wonder where all the light bulbs went, having disappeared in favor of LEDs in general.

They didn't have megasized supermarkets in 1950, but most of the goods would seem familiar: produce, bakery items, meats, tins of beans, corn flakes, candy bars. What would be surprising is the diverse packaging, and also the sometimes ingenious pop-open tops that have greatly reduced the need for can openers. Barcodes would be another big surprise, as well as the RFID systems that keep people from lifting DVDs from the rental shop.

Overall, however, things would seem recognizable in many ways -- fire stations, parks, hospitals, baseball games, newspapers, high schools, county fairgrounds, kids flying kites, all the homely things of a town. It is harder to know what a visitor from the past would think of the social changes: no more Red Scare, the enemy is Islamic extremism; more diversity, not inherently a bad thing but sometimes taken to extremes; and more regulation, again not inherently a bad thing but sometimes taken to extremes.

It would be even harder to say what we look like now to somebody from the past. Would we seem to have improved or gotten worse? Probably nothing more than a bit different. I suspect that the biggest revelation to somebody from 1950 is that everything would seem so familiar, just with some improvements. It's not the gleaming 21st century of 1950s sci-fi, with towers into the sky, flying cars, rocket belts, and sentient robots. The reality is that, in many if not all ways, the more things change -- the more they stay the same. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 21 APR 06] INFRASTRUCTURE -- MINING (1)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- MINING (1): I have to strongly recommend Brian Hayes' 2005 book INFRASTRUCTURE, which provides a slick, user-friendly survey of the industrial infrastructure that surrounds us. I wish I'd read this book 25 years ago and spared myself decades of ignorance. Just to make sure I have absorbed this book properly, I'll be outlining it in weekly installments over the next year or two, taking it a chapter at a time.

* Chapter one of INFRASTRUCTURE focuses on mining. It might seem superficially that mining is a straightforward matter, but it turns out that mining involves surprisingly elaborate technology. The same deposit may be exploited in different ways until it is finally exhausted. Exploiting a gold deposit might begin with "placer mining", using water to extract metal fragments from a sand or gravel bank; then moving on to a shaft mine; escalating to a full open-pit mine; and finally, when the deposit seems played out, extracting what's still available from the mine debris or "tailings".

Placer mining is just old-fashioned panning for gold. A "placer" (pronounced "plah-ser") is a deposit of sand or gravel with some exploitable concentration of a useful mineral, the deposits having been originally established by the action of rivers or glaciers. In panning, the miner sloshes sand or gravel around in water using a pan, washing away the light materials and leaving flakes of valuable metals behind. It's not very efficient, in essence only skimming off the cream of the metals in the deposit, but it doesn't require much investment in infrastructure.

The concept can be scaled up by using a "sluice box" or "riffle box", which is a chute with a riffled bottom through which water and sand or gravel is poured. A process known as "hydraulicking" further automates the process, using a high-pressure hose to tear apart the placer, with the material washed downstream to a sluice box. It's basically a form of automated erosion, producing a mass of silt that clogs streams, and it's illegal in the US except for Alaska. Hydraulicking is still used in the gold and diamond fields of Brazil, South Africa, and Southeast Asia, but spreading environmental regulations are hemming it in.

* As far as underground mines go, the stereotype is of a mine dug into a hillside. Such "tunnel mines" were great sites for old melodramas, but most mines are shaft mines, dug straight down into the ground. The most important single piece of gear for a shaft mine is the "hoist" that lifts the elevator for the mine, which lowers miners and mining gear down and brings ore back up. The concept is essentially like that of a building elevator, but building elevators only carry a few tonnes of load and travel a few hundred meters at most. A mine hoist, in contrast, may carry tens of tonnes of load and will travel several kilometers, and it is correspondingly much more heavy-duty.

The visible part of the hoist is the "headframe", which is traditionally in the form of a "split A-frame", angled on one side and vertical on the other, which provides a hub for the hoist cable. More modern headframes are in enclosed buildings sheathed with corrugated metal sheeting. At the top of the headframe is a big pulley known for some odd reason as a "sheaf" over which the hoist cable is slung. There's a power winch associated with the headframe to roll up or let out the cable; some contemporary headframes have the winch on the top of the headframe with the sheaf.

mine headframe

The ore-carrying buckets lifted by a mine hoist are called "skips", while the miner-carrying lifts are called "cages" -- no doubt because they have a foldup cage gate across the front. Skips are much heftier than cages since the skips have to carry a bigger load. It is not unusual to have a dual hoist with twin skips, the empty one going down as a partial counterweight to the loaded one coming up. By law, in the US, there must be at least two shafts into the mine, which usually translates as a "main shaft" for the skips and a "man shaft" for the miners.

The skips dump their loads into a hopper. The ore may be hauled away by truck or rail cars at a small mine, or by an aerial tramway in some cases, but it's usually moved by sets of conveyor belts that can stretch on for kilometers. Some kinds of ore can be mixed with water and pumped as a slurry through pipelines. However it's transported, the ore ends up being dumped onto an outdoor storage heap.

Mines require hefty ventilation systems, not merely to keep the miners from suffocating but to carry away dust, fumes from blasting, and in the case of coal mining, methane gas that could be an explosion hazard. Some hard-rock mines will have the fans at the bottom of the shaft, but coal mines will have them at the top so they won't be knocked out by an explosion. Just like household fans, the mine fans can be of axial configuration -- like a propeller -- or centrifugal configuration -- like a pump impeller. However, mine fans are much more powerful than any household fan.

Mines also require powerful pumps to keep them from filling up with water. The first application of steam engines was to drive mine pumps. Now the pumps are usually electric, and sited at the bottom of the mine, next to the sump where the water collects. As with mine fans, mine pumps tend towards the high-powered. Once mines are abandoned, they tend to fill up quickly; the water is often contaminated with metals, in some cases so much so that metals can be commercially extracted out of the water itself.

Really deep mines, four kilometers or more down, have been dug, and they are bigtime engineering challenges. Getting ventilation air down that deep is one problem, compounded by the fact that temperature rises about a degree Celsius for every 165 meters of depth. That means chiller plants to keep the miners from roasting. There is also no practical way to make a single hoist that can drop that far -- the weight of such a long cable becomes too much to handle -- so there are several levels of hoists, with men and ore transferred from level to level. The rock in the mines is under so much pressure that when a mine tunnel collapses, it is with earthquaking abruptness.

* Underground mining is still a dirty business, but it is not anywhere near as agonizingly laborious as it once was. In the days of man power, miners bored holes in a tunnel face the hard way, with one miner holding a drill rod and the other pounding on the rod with a sledgehammer. Charges were set, then -- after crying out "fire in the hole!" -- detonated. The debris was shoveled out and loaded into mule carts, a process known as "mucking"; shovels were called "muck sticks". Hand drilling evolved to pneumatic drilling, with multiple pneumatic drills now mounted on a crawling machine known as a "drilling jumbo" that drills out several holes at once. Machinery now also handles mucking out the ore.

After mucking out, the tunnel has to be reinforced to keep its roof from collapsing on the miners -- a misfortune referred to as "getting slabbed". Timbers were traditionally used for this job, but now tunnels are reinforced by metal "roof bolts" several meters long that are screwed into the tunnel ceiling.

The mine also includes underground facilities. Fan and pump rooms have been mentioned, but there are also powder magazines, tool rooms, electric-power stations, maintenance shops for equipment, latrines, sometimes even lunchrooms. In the old days, there were underground stables for the mules used to pull the ore carts.

* The introduction of automation means that mining, always an occupation loaded with lethal dangers, claims far fewer lives than it did a century ago. This is partly due to the fact that the automated methods have been designed to higher mandated safety standards, but mostly it is due to the fact that there are nowhere near as many miners. Mining has been farmed out to machines.

While we tend to think of automation in terms of factories with robot assembly lines, in reality 21st-century industry is automated to a high and surprising degree almost all along the board, using a far smaller labor force than required in the era of our great-grandparents. This is a theme that will be repeated over and over in the course of this series. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 20 APR 06] COSMIC IN ORBIT

* COSMIC IN ORBIT: On 14 April 2006, an Orbital Sciences Minotaur booster -- featuring the two lower stages of a surplus Minuteman ICBM and the two upper stages of a Orbital Taurus air-launched booster -- put the six-satellite "Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, & Climate (COSMIC)" into orbit.

COSMIC is a collaboration between the US and Taiwan, with the mission conceived by researchers at the University Center for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, and the satellite payloads built in Taiwan using mostly Taiwanese government funding. The Taiwanese also proudly call the system "FORMOSAT 3".

The six satellites were designed to perform atmospheric studies known as "radio occultation", sensing the refraction (bending) of the precision signals produced by Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation satellites as they pass over the Earth's horizon to the COSMIC satellites. The refraction measurements can provide data on atmospheric temperature, pressure, and moisture. The GPS receiver on each satellite was developed by the US National Aviation & Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL) in Pasadena, California. GPS radio occultation experiments have been flown as experiments before, but this is the first time the procedure has been put into operational use.

Orbital Science COSMIC satellites

The six satellites were based on the Orbital "MicroStar" standard satellite bus, originally developed for the Orbital "Orbcomm" low-orbit messaging comsats. Each satellite is in the shape of a disc a meter (1.1 yards) in diameter, with solar panel "covers" on each side that hinge open in space. The spacecraft are "gravity gradient stabilized", with a long extensible antenna mast hanging down in the Earth's gravity to maintain a stable orientation, but also have four small maneuvering thrusters. Launch weight of each satellite was less than 70 kilograms (157 pounds), with the six satellites launched in a stack. They were placed in an orbit with an inclination of 72 degrees to the Earth's equator and an altitude of 800 kilometers (500 miles). Over the next 13 months, the six satellites will space themselves evenly along the orbit, and then the formal observation phase of the mission will begin.

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[WED 19 APR 06] PARANOID STYLE

* PARANOID STYLE: THE ECONOMIST's American observer, Lexington, used as the basis for the column in the 7 January 2006 issue Professor Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". This item is available in full online, and it is worth citing in a criminally edited-down version here:

BEGIN QUOTE:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme Right-wingers. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily Right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.

The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholder's conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in the popular Left-wing press, in the contemporary American Right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today.

The modern Right wing feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old, but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.

[The Rightist] can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination.

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms; he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. As a member of the savant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman -- sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. The paranoid's interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone's will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; and so on.

A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it. The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent -- in fact, the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.

Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, [the paranoids] find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

END QUOTE

Lexington's angle on Hofstadter's essay was the shrill and sometimes over-the-top way Democrats have responded to the various outrages -- real, imagined, or some mixture of the two -- of the Bush II Administration. Lexington's suggestion was that the extreme rhetoric is not credible, accomplishing little but making the administration look good in comparison, which is a pity since the administration is vulnerable to rational criticism on a range of counts.

I saw nothing to argue with in Lexington's comments, but I was much more interested in Hofstadter's original essay. Though it might have been focused on the John Birch Right of the early 1960s, Hofstadter was careful to describe paranoia as a style, not restricted to Right or Left, religious or atheistic, techno-scientific or luddite. The mindset is alive and well today, and Hofstadter's description of it remains articulate, accurate, and even witty.

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[TUE 18 APR 06] GM ON THE HOME TURF / GREEN TAG GAME

* GM ON THE HOME TURF: The development of plant genetic modification has led to a strong backlash from activists, but as reported in a WIRED Online article ("Turf Warrior" by David Wolman), not everyone is intimidated. The article took a closeup of Jim Hagedorn, the aggressive CEO of lawn giant ScottsMiracle-Gro, who has a simple wish: "I'd like to see biotech in every backyard."

Hagedorn is a 50-year-old ex-USAF F-16 pilot who has a stable of muscle cars, and he's not soft-pedaling his ideas. The lawn industry is a big business, with worldwide revenues of about $7 billion USD a year, and ScottsMiracle-Gro raking in about a third of that -- $2.4 billion USD a year. The company didn't get that big without being energetic. Hagedorn states that homeowners trying to take care of their lawns face three problems: watering, maintenance, and weeds: "Solve those three issues and you're a friggin' hero!" The problem is that environmentalists, government regulators, and a public jumpy over GM may not all see him as so heroic.

Hagedorn has a good case to make, however. There are 130,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) of lawns in the US, which is about three times the area occupied by corn, making grass the biggest single user of irrigation water. A typical lawn will soak up about 38,000 liters (10,000 US gallons) of water in a year; in a desert locale like Las Vegas, the total may be ten times that. Usable water is a limited resource and the activities needed to obtain it have an environmental impact. Grass also soaks up pesticides and fertilizers that can become pollutants, and lawn mowers contribute their bit to atmospheric emissions.

Enter biotech. Although environmentalists are uneasy at best over biotech crops, about 13% of US farmland was planted with biotech crops in 2005, and its advocates are very enthusiastic. Not only are the crops more profitable, the advocates point out that the GM plants are environmentally more benign, requiring less plowing (and so reducing soil runoff), reducing the application of pesticides, and last but not least, reducing irrigation needs. Who could object to the same benefits in lawn care? Certainly not Jim Hagedorn: "If we want to keep gardening attractive and relevant in the Internet age, we have to meet this need." GM grass is coming and ScottsMiracle-Gro intends to bring it on.

Horace Hagedorn founded Miracle-Gro in 1951. His son Jim retired from the Air Force and joined the family business in 1987, coordinating a merger with Scotts in 1995 and taking the top job in 2001. By that time, the company was heavily into biotech. In 1998, ScottsMiracle-Gro established a partnership with Monsanto, the giant of plant GM, with the objective of using GM technology that had been developed for food crops to make better grass and flowers. The initiative was labeled "Smart Plants".

The first effort was to create a GM variety of creeping bentgrass, a popular grass variety often used on golf courses. The modified bentgrass featured a new gene known as CP4 EPSPS that made it resistant to the herbicide glyphosphate -- much better known by the Monsanto brand name of "Roundup". The "Roundup-ready" bentgrass would survive applications of herbicide that killed weeds and crabgrass. In 1999, to help acquire tools for the effort, ScottsMiracle-Gro acquired a majority stake in Sanford Scientific, a small instruments maker that sold a "gene gun" used to blast foreign genes into target organisms. The "biolistic" -- biology + ballistics -- gun fires tiny particles of tungsten or gold salted with genes into cells, with some fraction of the plants acquiring the genes.

The Roundup-ready bentgrass was ready for use in 2001. An application for approval was submitted to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2002; it hasn't been granted yet, but permission was given for growing seed plots in anticipation of the day when the USDA gives the green light.

The pilot plantings have been carefully monitored, with samples of grass taken well outside the bounds of the fields to see if the genetically modified grass has spread. Of course it has: grass is a wind-pollinated plant. Environmentalists fret about such Frankenstein hybrids running amok, but proponents point out that the hybrid grasses are little different from their wild ancestors, other than being resistant to Roundup. The hybrids can be killed by other types of herbicides.

However, the NEW YORK TIMES ran a front-page article citing a report about the spread of the GM grass, and the matter suddenly went ballistic. Even moderates were upset. The reason was that most plant crops can't survive without human help, but grass can keep on growing indefinitely whether people are taking care of it or not -- meaning that if the GM grass became a nuisance, we'd be stuck with it. The USDA approval process suddenly became more difficult. Confronted with public outcry and government bureaucracy, Hagedorn and his people backtracked. Hagedorn was simply making a tactical retreat; he had no intention of giving up. Company greenhouses are now growing new strains of grass that grow slowly, meaning they require less mowing. These grasses also have high concentrations of chlorophyll, making them greener.

Hagedorn is optimistic that the GM grass will get USDA approval. Once that happens, ScottsMiracle-Gro will tailor grasses to consumer needs, with drought resistance, disease resistance, slow growth, or whatever the buyer wants. He sees no major obstacles in his path: "I decide what I'm going after, and I go after it. I don't stop."

* GREEN TAG GAME: There's been talk at the governmental level of "emissions trading", in which companies whose factories have problems meeting emissions regulations can effectively "purchase" the emissions shortfall of other companies whose plants are well within the limits. The idea is interesting, if controversial. BUSINESS WEEK reports ("It's A Little Easier Being Green" by Heather Green, 10 April 2006) that some businesses have come up with a similar idea of "environmental trading" on their own, in the form of "green tags".

Coffee giant Starbucks is a leader in the effort. In 2005, the company pledged to buy 20% of its power from renewable sources. The immediate technical problem with this idea is that not all or even most of Starbucks' 8,400 US coffee shops have enough access to renewable energy to meet that standard. Starbucks came up with an interesting scheme to make good on their pledge, paying a half-penny per kilowatt-hour to a company named 3 Phases Energy in San Francisco. 3 Phase acts as a front for a number of wind energy companies, which use the Starbucks subsidy to sell more wind power, increasing the overall use of renewables. 3 Phase then hands certificates to Starbucks to validate the transaction.

A number of other companies, including some major corporations, have turned to such "green tag" arrangements to act as environmentally responsible citizens, and get some publicity along with it. It costs a premium -- from half a percent to 8% on top of their normal energy bill -- but it's generally cheaper than trying to buy renewable energy directly from a patchy network of suppliers.

Power utilities are getting into the green tag game as well. Some states, like California and New York, are requiring their utilities to deliver specified proportions of renewable energy, and green tags can be an easy way to achieve such goals. Even private citizens can now buy green tags and slap them on their cars for all to see. How far the approach can go remains to be seen -- government and private groups are working to introduce oversight and develop standards so the scheme won't be exploited or used for scams -- but right now green tags are a growth market.

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[MON 17 APR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (5)

* WELCOME TO 2006 (5): There were a number of other different things that the past didn't get quite right about the future. For example, as far as military technology was concerned, the only consistent vision of the future was the use of death rays of some sort. This mindset was so ingrained that when one of the inventors of the laser was persistently queried by a reporter about the possible use of the device as a weapon, the inventor finally reluctantly conceded that it might be useful in such a fashion, at least a good time in the future. The reporter immediately wrote an article on the use of lasers as death rays.

Actually, the military picked up on lasers as weapons very quickly, though it turned out that their usefulness was primarily for guidance, as a precision pointer that could place a bomb or missile through a particular window in a building. Nobody had foreseen such a simple concept, and the more recent idea of guiding weapons with a navigation satellite constellation was completely beyond the past's imagination -- as was the idea that such weapons might be controlled from across an ocean, with the operator observing the action using video over a satellite link. Once again, the past failed to generally recognize that 21st century technology would be much smarter than theirs.

As far as most military hardware goes, modern tanks, artillery, automatic weapons, and the like are not fundamentally different from those available in 1950, though there have been considerable refinements in design -- for example, many modern assault rifles have clear high-impact plastic ammunition magazines, allowing a soldier to see how much ammunition is left at a glance. Still, some of the weapons that are in service now were in service in 1950 -- the Browning Model 1911 0.45 caliber automatic pistol or the Browning M2 0.50 caliber heavy machine gun as instructive examples.

21st-century M1911 pistol

It might be a bit startling for a 1950s visitor to find that 21st-century M1911s -- generally used by special-operations forces who prefer it over less potent 9 millimeter automatics -- have whizzy features such as plastic grips, polymer coatings, and an attachment for laser sights, while still being recognizably the old Browning automatic, now approaching its hundredth birthday and still going strong. The M2 machine gun hasn't changed too much, new features being a more easily replaced barrel and improved mounts, but it can fire a much wider range of ammunition, such as the "sabot launched armor piercing (SLAP)" round, a subcaliber bullet fired using a plastic "sabot" shroud that attains much longer range. The assumption that the future would simply forget the past turned out to be silly: we've kept the valuable things we acquired in the past and have added improvements to them.

* The past's vision of future medical technology verged on expecting miracles, such as immortality, replacing lost organs or limbs, or curing male baldness. It's hard to think that such notions were taken very seriously at the time, and somebody from 1950 would probably think that medical practice hasn't advanced too much in over a half a century. That isn't true, since there have been advances all along the board: a colleague who survived lymphatic cancer through chemotherapy told me that his chances would have been nil a few decades earlier. We have drugs that can seriously fight viral infections -- an impossible idea in the mid-century. Laparascopic surgery, in which operations are performed through a small incision using various kinds of remote-manipulation tools, now allow patients to be up and around far faster than they would have been with traditional surgery. Robotic systems are now being introduced to extend the concept.

On the other hand, progress in organ transplants and prosthetics has been slow, if not nonexistent, and modern medical practice has to deal with some formidable new threats. One is the fact that bacterial pathogens are evolving to defy antibiotics, something which the inventors of antibiotics knew would happen sooner or later, and we're not developing new antibiotics fast enough to keep up. Another is the emergence of new diseases, such as HIV / AIDS. HIV is such a devious pathogen that it's hard to imagine how long it would have taken medical researchers of 1950 to figure it out. Of course, flu viruses have always been a threat, and due to their rapid mutability, they remain almost as dangerous as they ever were.

The reading of genetic codes of humans, animals, plants, and pathogens, does seem to promise a true revolution. We've managed to write out the book of life, though now we have to figure out how to read it. Sometimes technologies go through incredible growth spurts, such as aviation from 1940 to 1960, or computing from 1980 to 2000. Once we get our fingers into the genetic code, biomedicine may go through a similar growth spurt.

* And then there is the issue of energy. Inasmuch as the past thought about such things, the matter hardly seemed to be a worry. We'd have nuclear power or something like it that would provide all the energy we'd ever need. There were people who warned that oil was a finite resource a long time ago, but nobody paid too much attention to them.

Nuclear power turned out to be much trickier than most expected, and the limited nature of the supply of oil is much more obvious now. The later 1970s dreams of a "green" future haven't panned out all that well, either; windmills, solar power, and the like are more in evidence now than they were 30 years ago, but they're still a minority contributor in total. More can be made of such technologies, and it is obvious that big changes are in store.

* The past would not be too much surprised at cellphones, since the idea of everyone having a "walkie-talkie" of some sort has been around a long time. The bells and whistles on such phones, such as built-in cameras, might be a surprise.

Camera phones are also something the past expected, at least in a way. Usually in old cheapo sci-fi serials the heroes talked over video phones. The idea of actually talking to someone's face over the phone line did turn out to be a nonstarter, though it has cropped up in video conferencing. After all, staring at somebody's face would generally seem a bit tiresome; I've heard stories that there's a fad in China for nude picturephone chats between couples, but I suppose calling this a "face to face" conversation would be a bit inexact. It's more useful to use a camera phone to send information, such as a picture of a landmark where a meeting should take place, or of a lost dog. Camera phones are increasingly widespread, and videos taken with them have dramatically captured emergencies, such as the London Underground bombings on 7 July 2005. In some places, camera phones also have barcode scanning capabilities, allowing them to read data off posters and signs.

That leads to the consideration of the increasingly widespread use of security cameras, another thing that the past did rightly predict, and again in a way. George Orwell played with this notion in his novel 1984, and it likely wasn't original to him. The irony is that people would embrace the technology because of the security against crime that it offered. Indeed, one of the downsides of 21st century technology is the creeping way it has eroded privacy. Most people don't lose that much sleep over the tracking of their personal data and tastes -- I don't myself -- but a moment's thought over the matter can induce a bit of unease. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 14 APR 06] A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (12)

* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (12): Whatever wiped out the dinosaurs and the other great reptiles, the Tertiary period, beginning 65 million years ago, brought birds and mammals to the fore. There followed a general explosion of families, with all the major mammal families generally represented by about 50 million years ago.

While the Tertiary is often called the "age of mammals", that's something of an oversimplification: it was also the era when birds came of age, as well as flowering plants and, not coincidentally, social insects. Most variants of modern birds emerged, with some interesting extinct lineages, such as the "terror birds" of South America, which were oversized flightless predators, and the "elephant birds" of Madagascar, relatives of the ostrich about 3 meters (10 feet) tall that survived until very recently.

The last few million years of the Tertiary saw the introduction of an interesting new set of species: apelike primates that walked upright. There were several distinct variants of such "australopithecines", including a giant race known as "robustus", and they seemed to have used primitive stone tools. Another branch led to a more humanlike creature, "Homo habilus", and then by "Homo erectus", a clearly human form, though with a smaller brain than our own species.

By the beginning of the Quaternary period, a mere 1.5 million years ago, the climate was beginning to shift rapidly through a set of ice ages, which was accompanied by the rise of modern human forms. The first were the "Neanderthals", beetle-browed but close enough to modern humans to pass for them, and clearly users of tools and fires; and then the modern Homo sapiens, an evolutionary invention only a few hundred thousand years old.

Modern humans proved to be one of the most successful species to ever arise, gradually spreading over the entire planet and dominating the biosphere. In fact, the impact of humans on the environment is so profound, in terms of their generally negative effect to the present on other species, that it in the geological record the rise of humans may be the cause of yet another era of mass extinctions. [END OF SERIES]

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[THU 13 APR 06] URBAN GAMES

* URBAN GAMES: Jon Fine, who runs a column in BUSINESS WEEK on media and advertising titled "MediaCentric", ran an interesting item in the 10 April 2006 issue on a New York City company named "area/code", the brainchild of hardcore game freak Kevin Slavin and veteran game designer Frank Lantz. The 36-year-old Slavin is so single-minded in his pursuit of games of all types that he claims he unhooked his DirecTV account because it was cutting into his Xbox playtime. Now he has put this focus into what is to him the perfect occupation: creating elaborate multiplayer games that actually use the city streets as the playing board, with funding provided by advertisers. There is nothing entirely new about such "urban games" or "big games", but the idea of making them into a serious business is operating at a new level.

Technology makes such urban games much more practical, with the players networked using wi-fi and cellphones to coordinate the play. This was the basis for Lantz's 2004 "Pac Manhattan", in which the classic video game was played out on a grid of city blocks in Manhattan. It wasn't really done as a commercial exercise but Slavin, then working in an ad agency, saw the potential, observing that the game was "a form of media" for advertising that would provide "actual experiences for people instead of telling them about something" and pass the message on to onlookers.

Slavin got in touch with Lantz, and later in 2004 and into 2005 they ran the game "ConQwest", sponsored by Qwest Communications. ConQwest operated in ten cities and was based on imagery posted in the cities to provide clues, with the imagery recorded and passed on by the camera phones of the players. Pieces of the game also popped up in weekly newspapers and clever fake ads in public places -- one proclaiming deadpan: "It smells so good you'll fall in love with yourself!" ConQwest cost $3.2 million USD, but it paid off, with praise in the ad industry press and a number of awards.

The whole concept sounds a bit too loopy to fly for long, but it has an ace in the hole: Slavin and Lantz love games and see advertising as a way to run a game, instead of using a game as a form of advertising. They want to have fun first of all, and if they make money at it, so much the better. If anybody can make a go of it, they can.

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[WED 12 APR 06] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A POPULAR SCIENCE note from December 2005 talked about a new highway bridge in Wisconsin that looks perfectly ordinary from the outside, but uses a reinforcement grid of plastic composite instead of ordinary steel "rebar". The bridge was designed by engineers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is intended to address a problem faced by bridges in such northern climates: the use of salt to deice roadways in winter, resulting in seepage of salt water into the bridge structure and corrosion of steel rebar. The composite bridge cost over a third more than a conventional bridge, but is expected to last twice as long.

* Another article in the same issue displayed an interesting gimmick developed by biologist Lawrence Rome of the University of Pennsylvania: a self-powered backpack. The backpack's frame is designed so that the pack itself moves up and down on rails, spinning an electric generator that can produce a maximum of more than seven watts to run electric gear or charge a battery. Although the added kit increases weight a bit, the buffered up and down motion of the pack actually makes it more comfortable to carry. The scheme has obvious military applications -- grunts in the field carry a fair amount of electronic gear, and research on the concept was partly funded by the US Naval Research Lab -- but Rome is also trying to commercialize it.

* In other gimmick & gadget news, according to BBC WORLD Online, a research team under Dr. David Russell at the University of East Anglia in the UK has developed a system for detecting toxins and pathogens, based on gold nanoparticles about 16 nanometers in diameter. The particles are coated with sugars specific to the target or class of targets to be detected, and then placed in a weak solution. When the target material is added to the solution, the solution changes quickly from red to blue. The lab team has also tinkered with solutions of particles that can detect several different targets using sets of nanoparticles; the color change is less vivid but still noticeable.

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[TUE 11 APR 06] LEARN MANDARIN NOW / DANGER PANDAS

* LEARN MANDARIN NOW: It is obvious that China is going to be a much bigger world player in the 21st century than it was in the 20th, and one symptom of this increasing influence is the global spread of the Mandarin, the common tongue among the many Chinese dialects. According to a WIRED ONLINE article ("The Mandarin Offensive" by Michael Erard), China's "National Office For Teaching Chinese As A Foreign Language" -- AKA "Hanban" -- is enjoying widespread success. Thailand and South Korea will offer Chinese in elementary and middle schools by 2007. Europe is moving along, with France and Germany leading the pack there. The US is lagging, but Mandarin is becoming more popular here, too: there are "Confucius Institutes" dedicated to spreading Chinese language and culture on six US university campuses, out of 41 over the entire globe. The Hanban is looking forward to establishing 100 such institutes.

The bulging population of China means that Mandarin is actually the first language of more people than English, and Mandarin is also the second most common language on the Internet. Hanban officials believe that there are about 30 million people around the world currently learning Mandarin as a second language, and the office is working to increase that number to 100 million in four years.

China's government backs the effort with funding of $25 million a year. In 2005, the Hanban sent volunteer teachers to two dozen countries, and intends to top that number this year. The office provides money and tools to get the foreign Confucius Institutes working. The tools include learning games, such as "Chengo Chinese", which the Hanban developed in collaboration with the US Department of Education.

Imperial China sent emissaries abroad to sell Chinese culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, but those efforts pale in comparison to the global ambitions of the Hanban, some comparing the effort to a "Moon shot". Spreading Mandarin is seen as a way of increasing Chinese business, political, and social influence in a distinctly nonthreatening way, and there are a number of influential Americans who are enthusiastic about the exercise.

* DANGER PANDAS: In other China news, the panda bear is a creature so adorable that it suggests the Creator has a cutesy side to Him. Chinese regard the panda as something of a national mascot, and millennia ago Chinese emperors were use it as a token in diplomacy. The Chinese have strong roots in their customs, and following Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China in 1972, two pandas named Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing found their way to the US National Zoo in Washington DC.

Now, according to a NEWSWEEK article ("China's Panda Politics" by Melinda Liu and George Wehrfritz, 3 April 2006), China has two little panda cubs named "Tuan Tuan" and "Yuan Yuan" and has proposed that they be given to Taiwan. The idea is very popular in Taiwan; 65% of the populace is in favor of it. However, Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, wants to turn the deal down. It is after all no coincidence that in Chinese, "tuanyuan" means "reunion".

This is not a strictly emotional issue, either. Officially, China cannot give pandas to any foreign land; expatriate pandas sent overseas are on loan, and the financial terms of the loan can be stiff indeed. In contrast, Beijing insists that Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan will be an outright gift, with no strings attached. However, that doesn't conceal the big string that once Taiwan accepts the pandas under those terms, the island's government has conceded in principle that it is part of China.

The pandas will be very hard to turn down, with Taiwanese zoos scrambling to prepare for them. The political position of Chen and his party is weak at the moment and he may not be able to resist the pressure to accept them. The panda offer is part of a charm offensive on the part of Beijing, with other elements including cuts on tariffs against Taiwanese goods and establishing friendly relationships with Taiwanese opposition politicians. Sneaky, maybe, but it's far preferable to the threats and sabre-rattling of not so long ago. A Chinese foreign policy based on mass production of pandas seems much more charming than one based on missiles.

giant panda

There's another bright side to the story. Pandas are very rare, with only about 1,600 living in the wild and about 200 in captivity. The dwindling numbers in the wild have mostly been due to human encroachment on panda habitats, and the authorities have been taking measures to give the pandas more space. Pandas were once seen as ridiculously difficult to breed in zoos, but it turned out that the problem was less the pandas than the zoo-keepers, who penned the bears up in uncomfortable habitats, didn't feed them right, and weren't sensitive to the peculiarities of panda romance -- for example, females are only in heat three or four days a year, and it must be admitted that the pandas don't make it easy for the zoo-keepers, either. As a result of improved methods, in recent years Chinese panda facilities have had so many cubs that they are being forced to find new facilities to house them all.

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[MON 10 APR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (4)

* WELCOME TO 2006 (4): The gross inability of the sci-fi writers of decades past to foresee the future of computing is easy to see in science-fiction novels of the 1950s that envisioned spacefarers navigating their way using ... slide rules. The writers had no idea that within two decades, slide rules would be museum pieces.

In fact, the past so thoroughly missed the boat on computing that it represents probably the one 21st-century technology that would completely dazzle somebody from 1950. Computers were around then, and people could imagine that they would be bigger and more powerful in the future, but sci-fi writers did nothing more imaginative with them than propose that they would become superpowerful electronic brains -- likely bent on world domination or extermination of the human race or something along such lines. The notion recalls the old joke about the super-powerful computer being turned on, to be posed the question: IS THERE A GOD? -- and replying: THERE IS NOW.

Certainly we've come a long ways in making more powerful big computers, but they're much more likely to be used to try to improve weather prediction or take on similar "computation intensive" tasks than try to control the world. The most visible action has been at the other end of the range of computer power, which in some ways has taken over the world.

It was the revolution in solid-state electronics that made the computer universal. The sci-fi writers of the 1950s were really not able to consider the possibility of tens of millions of transistors on a single square crystal of silicon, much less the reality of how cheap such things would be when produced in vast quantities. It would also been a real leap of imagination to consider what ordinary people would do with a "personal" computer (PC).

At the outset of personal computing in the 1970s, of course, PCs were basically just toys for hobbyists, not capable of doing much. By the 1980s, however, people could start to see what they were good for. There were three primary applications at the time:

PCs didn't really come of age until the introduction of the critical component: communications. To be sure, even in the early 1980s, PCs had communications capability, but this was generally a point-to-point thing -- somebody dialing a particular phone number with a 2400 baud modem to get into a bulletin-board system (BBS), for example. It wasn't until the early 1990s that the internet, once a private club for academics and research establishments, had become an "information superhighway" that anyone who could sign up with an internet service provider (ISP) could access.

At first, the internet was a medium for email; the glorified bulletin-board service known as "News" or "Notes"; and "anonymous FTP" archives where people could "download" say, images of pretty models and movie stars to their PCs. However, the development of the "World Wide Web" or "web" early in the decade made "surfing" around the Internet easy as clicking buttons and following signs, and commerce over the web took off. Somebody from 1950 would probably give me a blank look if I told her this and say: "I don't understand this at all."

I reply: "I'm planning a long road trip next month. I can get on the web and find out about all the attractions I want to visit, what their costs and operating hours are. I can find motels in each area and set up reservations. I can then get maps that take me directly from one destination to another, door to door, greatly reducing the likelihood of getting lost in big-city traffic. I can get information on city transit systems and find out how much a day pass would cost. Since I like to take lots of pictures on my trips, I can also get online to buy any accessory I need beforehand. Oh yeah, before I leave I can get weather forecasts for all the locations."

Then I could go on and talk about online forums, music downloads, multirole gaming, educational materials ... though I might not mention online porn. I could also add that not only can I buy things online, as if the web were a "super catalog", I can also resell them again at a good price to a national marketplace. Once explained, an observer from the past might nod her head, but having done that, I would have to add the downside: Computer crime. I am sure that would get me a very blank look: "What?"

"Well, the least crime is what we call, for some obscure reason, 'spam'. It amounts to send out ads for dubious overpriced products all over the Internet."

"Why would advertising be a crime?"

"Ah ... imagine somebody flying over a town in an airplane and dropping so many advertising leaflets on a regular basis that the litter is everywhere, simply in hopes of finding a few suckers who will bite on it. Imagine that they conceal their identity while doing it, and continue to do it even when whole communities are up in arms about it." And then I could go on and describe phishing, Nigerian scams, viruses, spyware, zombienets, and so on. Blank looks again: "Why would anybody go through such trouble to send out computer viruses?" "Oh, just to be jerks on a grand scale." "Who would be stupid enough to fall for these Nigerian scams?" "You think we don't have as many stupid people now as we did in your day? Just because it's the future doesn't mean we're any smarter."

I would then reassure my guest that, the internet being fairly new, we haven't got a good handle on security issues yet, and the worst of this stuff is likely to go away in a decade or so. Moving on to explain that computing is almost universal in the modern world and likely to get much more so -- with household appliances obtaining computing smarts in the near future to communicate with things like milk containers with radio ID tags -- would be overkill. The future is here, and even we don't understand it all that well.

* I have to add as a personal note that I was privileged to grow up along with the computer revolution. I started out running a PDP-8 computer, installing the bootstrap loader from the front panel switches to load the system using paper tape, and using a teletype for I/O. Then I did FORTRAN programming using punch cards on a mainframe, and put together a one-board 6800 computer with 256 bytes of RAM that I programmed by punching in hex codes.

I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 early on, using an audio cassette player as a mass storage device, though I didn't really make very good use of it. I recall when the first IBM PC came out, we got one at the Corporation; when we took apart the keyboard, a mass of little key lever panels popped out all over the floor. Since that time, I've been continuously upgrading my PCs at home, cycling at rate of a new PC about every three to five years. The steady advance in capabilities has been nothing short of astounding. I couldn't imagine a life without computing; it would be like being blind, deaf, and dumb. Sure beats slide rules. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 07 APR 06] A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (11)

* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (11): The Triassic and Jurassic periods, beginning 240 million and 205 million years ago respectively, were the first two of the three great ages of reptiles. Two major families of "dinosaurs" would become established during the Triassic:

It is a popular misunderstanding to believe that all the exotic reptiles of this era were dinosaurs, but many were nothing of the sort: the "plesioaurs", the classic "Loch Ness monster" marine reptiles, and the dolphinlike reptilian "ichthyosaurs" emerged in the Jurassic, as did the flying "pterosaurs", the only reptiles capable of true flight. Crocodilians and turtles also emerged in this era; lizards grew to monstrous size in the form of the "mosasaurs", which were oversized ocean-going monitor lizards.

pterosaurs

While the scenery might have been dominated by reptiles, they weren't the only creatures in the game: "ammonites", shelled cephalopods, were common, as well as frogs and salamanders. Birds, in the form of the toothed archaeopteryx, as well as primitive mammals -- creatures not so different from modern shrews -- emerged in the late Triassic.

No birds have teeth any longer, but relics of the early days of mammals survive, in the form of the "monotremes" of New Zealand like the platypus that lay eggs but give milk to their young. In the case of the platypus, however, except for its inclination to lay eggs it cannot be considered a "living fossil" in any way, instead being a highly evolved animal, sporting webbed feet, poison spurs, and an ultrasensitive "duckbill" for hunting worms and the like in brackish water. The age of dinosaurs also saw the introduction of the other two branches of the family of mammals, the "marsupials" like the kangaroo and opossom -- which give birth to young in a near-embryonic state after a short and convenient gestation period -- and the "placental" mammals, which give birth to generally developed young after a long gestation period.

* The Cretaceous period, beginning 135 million years ago, was the last of the great ages of dinosaurs. In terms of the beasts of the lands, the Cretaceous was different in degree but not in kind, with the carnosaurs reaching their peak in the "tyrannosaurus rex" and acquiring some movie-monster notoriety (in the modern era) through the introduction of the "velociraptor". The pterosaurs also reached a peak of sorts, represented by the huge "Quexactolus", the size of a sailplane. There were sea turtles twice the dimensions of modern sea turtles. The biggest innovation of the Cretaceous was somewhat less spectacular: flowering plants, and the pollinating insects such as bees to go along with them. Before the Cretaceous the world had no flowers; by the end of the era, the "angiosperms" would be the rulers of the plant worlds.

The Cretaceous came to an abrupt end 65 million years ago. The general consensus for some years was that a giant meteor impact that hit in what is now the Yucatan peninsula causes a wave of burning, followed by a long winter and a climatic shift. That hasn't been ruled out, but now researchers are not so sure. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 06 APR 06] IMPLANTABLE RFID

* IMPLANTABLE RFID: As discussed by an article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("RFID Inside" by Kenneth R. Foster & Jan Jaeger, March 2007), the rapid proliferation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems has made some people nervous, and they have become more nervous as the prospect of humans being commonly implanted with RFID chips becomes more likely.

The idea has its clear attractions. An implantable RFID chip, about the size of a grain of rice, could store or provide links to personal information such as the identity, nationality, security clearances, and medical profile of its host. A simple wave of an implanted hand could unlock a door, start a car, or let an emergency medical team know that the host is a diabetic. Since the implant is powered by an external reader, there is no need for it to have batteries, giving it a very long service lifetime.

RFID implant

There is also the downside: will employers be able to demand that hirelings accept an implant? Once implanted, not only will an employer be able to track an employee's movements, but every checkout counter in a store would be able to identify the employee.

The notion of implantable RFID was in the domain of experimenters until 2004, when the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved an RFID tag for human implantation. The tag, known as the "VeriChip", can be read to provide a 16-digit code that indexes the host's medical records under the "VeriMed" system. A few thousand people have received the implants so far.

The company that makes the implant, Verichip Corporation -- a branch of Applied Digital Solutions in Delray, Florida -- is also promoting the VeriChip as a security system, and has a handful of clients using it for that purpose. In a few nightclubs in Europe and the US, patrons can get "chipped", so that every time they enter they will have their favorite drink waiting for them after they walk through the door. In addition, VeriChip has ideas for using the implants as replacements for military dogtags, and has proposed chipping guest workers coming into the USA.

* All this might sound like a gleaming future to a hardcore RFID enthusiast, but it makes everyone else a bit uneasy, since the potential for invasion of privacy and government intrusion is much too obvious. There's no big problem with the main objective of RFID implants, as a scheme for identifying patients in distress who might not be able to communicate, allowing their medical records to be accessed. As long as the patient gives informed consent and the privacy of the patient's medical records is protected, the opportunities for abuse are limited. However, VeriChip's proposal to chip guest workers has drawn fire. There's practical issues to consider: who pays for the chipping, who tracks the chips, who replaces the chips if they are compromised, and who handles any adverse reactions to the implantation. More importantly, it wouldn't really be voluntary, and it has an uncomfortable similarity to marking the workers with tattoos.

A public survey conducted by researchers at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts suggested that the public resistance to chipping in general is high, with only a third of those surveyed said they would accept an implant and about half saying they would not. To the extent that it was acceptable, it was mostly only as a health-information measure, and not as a means of providing identification.

The use of implants as a health-information measure does open up a legal door by which the government can mandate their use. After all, public schools have immunization requirements, and there's no inherent legal obstacle to insisting that the students have implants as well. Actually, even VeriChip doesn't see such a broad measure as desireable and only advocates chipping people who are more likely than others to end up in the emergency room -- people with chronic health problems, who are undergoing chemotherapy or other drastic treatments, who have medical implants, and so on. Most other people can simply carry a card in their wallets or a memory chip with their health records. In fact, it's uncertain that implants have much advantage over less invasive alternatives; an RFID-enabled bracelet would be cheaper and less intrusive. A study is now underway in New Jersey to examine the issue.

Still, non-medical uses of chipping open up a Pandora's box of issues. Suppose a company chips all its employees? If an employee leaves the company or the company folds, is the company required to remove the implant? It's not hard to do, incidentally. More importantly, what data gets put on the implant, and who gets to read it? The VeriChip only provides an ID number, which makes it of little general use, and readers can only interrogate it from about a hand's width away. However, implants are likely to become more capable and there's no technical obstacle to building readers with longer range. More capable chips will require encryption -- the VeriChip doesn't have it -- to ensure security; nobody likes the idea of a stranger scanning information out of them without their knowledge, much less their consent.

Several US states have passed laws forbidding the mandatory use of implants, but that won't prevent implants from becoming effective requirements for some lines of work. There are no laws requiring encryption of implants yet, in fact there aren't laws to make the unauthorized reading of an implant illegal. Right now there is no immediate necessity of doing so -- but the time may come more quickly than expected.

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[WED 05 APR 06] COSMIC RAY MENACE

* COSMIC RAY MENACE: A recent article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Shielding Space Travelers" by Eugene N. Parker, March 2006) points out the hazards of cosmic rays to astronauts on long space voyages. Cosmic rays are space ions that have been propelled to high velocities by various processes -- some cosmic rays have extremely high velocities and nobody can figure out any process that could drive them to such speeds -- that smash into our upper atmosphere on a continuous basis, generating sets of high-energy particles that cascade down to Earth. The atmosphere prevents them from being a hazard to us on the ground.

Astronauts flying to Mars will not have a thick atmosphere to shield them from cosmic rays, and Mars itself has a very thin atmosphere, meaning they will not be safe from cosmic rays even after they make landfall. A recent report from the US Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City suggests that astronauts on a voyage to Mars would endure more than 80 rems of radiation a year. In contrast, the safe limit for a nuclear plant worker is 5 rems per years. One in ten male astronauts would die of cancer; since women are more susceptible to breast cancer, one in six would die. Astronauts would also have to worry about the floods of energetic particle radiation emitted by the Sun through solar flares.

The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) set up a "Space Radiation Shielding Program" in 2003 to consider the problem. One option is simply to surround a spacecraft with shielding. To get the equivalent of full atmospheric protection would require a kilogram of shielding mass per square centimeter of external spacecraft area, though half that mass would likely be workable. For a small space capsule, that would be equivalent to a shell of water 15 meters (50 feet) thick around the spacecraft. That would run to hundreds of tonnes. Water is an attractive shielding material because the crew would need it anyway to stay alive. A polyethylene shield would be 20% lighter -- not a big mass reduction, but polyethylene doesn't require tanks that could leak and could also provide micrometeorite protection.

Another approach is to use a magnetic field to divert the cosmic rays. However, to provide adequate shielding would require a field strength of 20 teslas -- about 600,000 times the magnetic field strength of the Earth at the Equator. A team under well-known physicist Sam Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has designed a superconducting magnetic field generator that weighs 9 tonnes (10 tons). Since a magnetic field is polar and provides no obstacle to charged particles at its poles, the living quarters of a spaceship would have to be donut-shaped. Nobody has any idea how astronauts would survive in a magnetic field of 20 teslas; one physicist who stuck his head into a 0.5 tesla field found that whenever he moved, he would see flashes in his eyes and get an acid taste in his mouth, apparently because of the electrolysis of his saliva. An opposing electromagnet system would likely be needed to keep the astronauts healthy, with the secondary system increasing cost and weight.

There have been other proposed solutions, but they suffer from significant weaknesses. One alternative idea is to generate a strong negative electrostatic field that repels the positive cosmic rays -- but this would require a good deal of power, and would also strongly attract the flux of negatively-charged space electrons in the solar wind, making them just as dangerous a source of particulate radiation. For the moment, the situation does not seem very promising. However, NASA and other organizations are only beginning to consider the problem; in time the outlook may improve, though whether it does or not remains to be seen.

* ED: The cosmic ray problem does not actually rule out long-duration human space missions so much as it rules out such missions on a small scale. Surrounding a space capsule with a 15-meter layer of water is ridiculous, but surrounding a space colony of reasonable size with such a layer would be no great problem: the surface area would go up by the square of the diameter, while the volume would go up by the cube. However, we're not going to be thinking this big in a serious fashion any time soon.

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[TUE 04 APR 06] METHANE HYDRATES

* METHANE HYDRATES: An article in POPULAR MECHANICS ("Fire In Ice" by Babara Maynard, April 2006), followed the voyage of the ocean research drilling vessel, the JOIDES RESOLUTION, as it roamed the seas in search of "methane hydrates". Methane hydrates are clumps of methane and water ice that are found in a layer under some parts of the ocean floor where the pressure is high and the temperature is low; they are also found in much smaller quantities under some permafrost regions on land. When a chunk of it is brought to the surface, it looks like a hard-packed snowball that quickly hisses and pops and evaporates away. Set a match to it and it burns.

Methane hydrates are a tempting source of energy. A minimal estimate of the worldwide supply of hydrates provided by the US Geological survey (USGS) runs to 1E17 cubic feet (2.8E15 cubic meters); the high estimate runs to 3,000 times that. Says a US Department of Energy (DOE) official: "There's more energy potential locked up in methane hydrates than in all other fossil energy resources combined." One field discovered off the coast of the Carolinas has enough methane hydrates to supply the US with natural gas for 110 years at current consumption rates.

The problem is to find an economical way to extract them. The JOIDES RESOLUTION is characterizing the ocean deposits to determine which might be the most promising for exploitation. Several methods are being considered to do the job. The simplest is to drill into the hydrate layer, with the methane drawn out simply by the low pressure up the drill pipe. A second scheme is to pump hot water down the pipe to force the methane out. Both these schemes have been tested in the Canadian northlands; a third scheme involves pumping down carbon dioxide to displace the methane, but it's only been tested in the lab.

JOIDES RESOLUTION

The carbon dioxide approach seems to be the most difficult, but it has the advantage that it gets rid of carbon dioxide that could contribute to global warming. This consideration does lead to one of the big potential downsides of exploiting methane hydrates: methane is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and if any appreciable quantities of it were vented in the drilling operation, it would give global warming a big and unwanted boost -- though fortunately methane breaks down into water and CO2 in a few decades. There is also the worry that extracting the methane might cause the seafloor to slump, causing tsunamis. Research continues.

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[MON 03 APR 06] MICRODRIVES / LUNARPAGES SCAM / ANOTHER MONTH

* MICRODRIVES: The "Working Knowledge" column in the March 2006 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN focused on the miniaturized hard discs with a capacity of a few gigabytes found in iPods and other small portable devices. Like their bigger cousins, such "microdrives" are built around a spinning disk-shaped "platter" covered with magnetizible material arranged in concentric "tracks" that are split into pie-slice "sectors". An actuator system moves an "arm" with a "read-write head" at the tip to find sectors with desired information for reading, or unused sectors for writing.

Of course, the components of such microdrives are highly miniaturized. The disk is thinner than a dime, and the electromagnetic motor that spins it around could easily fit on a thumbnail. The motor is generally a "permanent-magnet synchronous" design: the spinning rotor is mounted with permanent magnets, ringed by a non-moving stator with a half-dozen or so electromagnetic teeth, which are sequentially activated to drive the rotor around.

While the platters of big disc drives spin on ball bearings, it isn't practical or cost-effective to miniaturize such a bearing system, and microdrive platters spin on a liquid bearing surface instead. The liquid, usually an oil, must have consistent and stable properties over the full range of temperatures the microdrive is specified to tolerate.

The arm mounting the read-write head is usually moved by a "voice coil" actuator. In this scheme, a coil is mounted to the rear of the arm behind the pivot, with a flat permanent magnet fixed underneath. Sending varying currents through the coil moves the read-write head back and forth across the platter. The read-write head can sense the magnetic field changes on the platter to detect written bits, or generate a magnetic field to change the bits on the platter.

Microdrives continue to be improved. Manufacturers are now investigating air bearing systems to support higher speeds. Another scheme under investigation is a piezoelectric drive to replace the magnetic drive currently used by microdrive platters; in this concept, the platter drive shaft is wrapped with a piezoelectric material that flexes when an electric current is run through it, twisting the shaft around. A particularly interesting idea is a "micromotor" read-write head, fabricated with micromachining processes. As discs become denser, it becomes more difficult to find the tracks using the read-write arm. The micromotor read-write head will be able to hunt around under the tip of the arm to find tracks, and may be able to repair damaged tracks as well.

* LUNARPAGES SCAM: I'm a student of scams and am knowledgeable about them, but I've always known that nobody is immune to a scam: for every person out there, there's a game that will take them in. This was proven to me by the fact that I just got scammed. I was poking around on web hosting review sites and ran into some glowing comments about LunarPages web hosting, which offered what amounted to a really good deal -- far more goodies than my current hosting provider gave me.

So I signed up; to get the best rate, I took the two-year pay-in-advance plan, a fair bit up front but it would seem to pay off. There were some communications difficulties on my end at the outset, so I decided to contact LunarPages to make sure things were on track. Although I did manage to get my website itself moved, when I tried to get the domain name transferred, I suffered through three days of sheer doubletalk, runaround games, stonewalling, and so on, leading me to wonder if the people were staggeringly inept or deliberately baiting me. I called their hotline phone number, but everyone was busy working on an emergency.

Then the truth dawned on me: they had just scammed me. They were neither being inept nor baiting me, as such: they were deliberately blowing me off and were laughing their heads off all along. I did some poking around on the Net and found a site with people who had also been scammed by LunarPages. The web hosting review site appears to have been a front of some sort to pull in suckers. That was stupid of me. I know perfectly well that interested parties often load up online reviews -- and if they're all 100% glowing, something's wrong. Sigh, I read up on scams but I hadn't heard about hosting scams.

Then I realized that calling them might have been another scam, meaning I might be racking up huge phone bills to Madagascar or someplace ... since they didn't try to keep my hanging on the line, that seemed unlikely, but I didn't want to try it again. That led to another revelation: they have my login on my website. They really couldn't do much more with it than play pranks on me, but I changed the password immediately and then asked the support people at my legit hosting service to see if anything suspicious had been placed on the site. Then I had a much worse revelation: They have my credit card number.

I promptly blocked it. From what I saw of the other complaints, LunarPages is just a sleazy business, not an outright criminal operation, and, since it operates on a traceable basis, was not going to commit a blatant crime themselves -- they would get nailed. However, there was nothing to prevent them from quietly selling off my credit card number to somebody else. I couldn't take the chance. So I am getting a new card, recovering my losses from VISA, and making sure everyone who bills me monthly via VISA gets an updated card number ASAP.

They tried to jerk me around again, and I replied: "Ah, you've had your fun, but the game's over now." They had a "never say die" attitude and then got in one little last shot in by claiming they were going to refund my money. Considering they were complete frauds -- "whether the truth or a lie, still certain to deceive" -- and that they knew I had blocked my VISA card, I was not confused for long. The chances of getting any money from them were nil and they were just hoping to rope me into another runaround. I contacted VISA and got the paperwork rolling to get it back anyway. I did get my money back, by exactly what process I am not sure. They may have actually performed the refund on their own, which would suggest that they weren't trying to pull off scams as such, they were just grossly inept and indifferent -- not that it made any difference on the receiving end.

In any case, I've learned to run the "scam test" on Google: just type in:

   <company_name> SCAM RIPOFF FRAUD

-- and see what comes back. If I'd done that to begin with, I'd be a happier person today.

* ANOTHER MONTH: People following the blog may notice it has now evolved to a Monday through Friday format. Actually, it should have earlier, since from the start I vaguely figured that five postings a week were about right. Seven days a week isn't reasonable, though I may write up and archive articles on the weekends. [I later added materials to the older archives and rearranged the dates, retroactively imposing the M:F format on them.]

I did add a major feature to the site this month: a public-domain high-resolution photo archive. (Just go to the home page if you're curious.) I've got 128 images at the outset, which is enough to keep people from laughing at me, but I need at least a thousand good-quality pix to be taken seriously. I keep trying to figure out interesting shots to take; the "shutter bug" has sunk its teeth into me hard.

Another thing I got done was updating my drones document. I'd been struggling to find time, and I finally decided to not do quite the job I wanted just so I could get it finished. I had a comment at the end: "I have found attempting to contact companies for information to be troublesome and unproductive and have given it up as a bad idea."

It might not seem obvious why this would be so, but in general the queries were rarely answered -- like DUH, the companies are busy, and I'm neither an active nor potential customer -- and when they were, the answers weren't necessarily all that useful. This leads to the related observation that company websites are not necessarily a particularly good place to get detailed information about that company's products -- they can be in some cases, but in other cases company websites are not very useful.

It often seems that companies put together a website because they feel they have to as a business measure, but that doesn't imply putting much in the way of resources into doing it, or bothering to keep it very up-to-date. I get a particular half-disgusted laugh out of what I think of as "stereotype corporate" websites, which come up with beautiful graphics, video, Flash animations, and all sorts of stylish bells and whistles. I immediately think: "This will take forever to load, and I won't be able to find anything useful."

That's one of the big reasons I keep my own site as plain-vanilla as possible: it may not look snazzy, but it loads fast and it's maintainable. Maintenance, not so incidentally, is a major issue with a large site. The other is that I prefer to focus on content and, as a good engineering type, don't like nonfunctional clutter anyway. I did get a (polite) complaint about my "white background and Times Roman text" style -- to which I (equally politely) replied: "Do you know that you can set your own default background colors and font styles to whatever you like in your browser?" It seems, however, that people rarely do -- but if they don't bother, they likely don't care very much, either.

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