oct 2006 / last mod jan 2018 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: oil & gas infrastructure, another road trip, fisheries quota system, THE ONION, Sunni versus Shiite in Iraq, 100 MPG cars, Africa@Home network, the problem with NOCs, deep oil wells, green China, energetic Amazon.com, alternative computing for the developing world, booming Russian cities, falling Russian population, palm oil biodiesel, falling oil prices, and optimistic Iran.

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* NEW DAWN FOR FISHERIES? The oceanic fisheries industry has been sometimes referred to as the "last major domain of the hunter-gatherer". It has also been played up as well as a vivid example of the "tragedy of the commons": given many players who have free access to a common resource each players has an irresistible incentive to mine it out as fast as, possible before another player inevitably does so. The result has been dwindling returns for the fishing industry.

The solution to the problem is clearly regulatory, and as an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Fished Out" by Aaron Pressman, 4 September 2006) describes, after some fumbling things may gradually looking up for the ocean fisheries industry.

The problem is a big one. In 1996, the US Congress passed a law to control fisheries in order to rebuild fish stocks, but it hasn't had much impact. Says an industry observer: "Half of these species are being overfished even now. All the incentives are to get around the rules." The list of overfished species is a long one: Georges Bank cod, Canary rockfish, red snapper, and Pacific Northwest salmon, among others.

Some fisheries, like the New England scallop and Maine lobster industries, are doing well, but the other fisheries have seen the writing on the wall and are justifiably worried. That might be thought to provide an incentive to go along with regulation, but unfortunately the regulation has been more painful than workable, an example of government planning at its worst. In the USA, regulation of commercial fishing is balkanized, with the rules set by eight regional councils made up of industry, state, and federal regulators, plus scientists and environmentalists. The result has been sets of confusing rules with built-in incentives for cheating, along with spotty enforcement.

The American fisheries industry is also being squeezed by foreign competition, since efficient air transport allows buyers to obtain fresh fish from anyplace in the world. To add to the blues, fish farming has been booming outside the USA, with heavy imports from shrimp farms in East Asia and salmon farms in Europe and South America. Ironically, despite depletion of ocean stocks, Americans are eating more seafood than ever, but the growth market has been imports, while US fisheries continue their slow decline. The only silver lining is that demand has pushed up prices, helping keep American fishing boats afloat.

* Countries like New Zealand, Iceland, parts of Canada, and Australia were once confronted with declining ocean fisheries, but they implemented a scheme, known as "individual transferable quotas (ITQs)", that has sent the trendlines rising again.

Consider, as a bad example, how halibut fishing used to be conducted out of the island of Kodiak, Alaska. There would be a "derby" for about two days a year when halibut could be fished, leading to a mad scramble to get as much halibut on board before the whistle blew. That meant dumping the entire load on the fish processing industry at one time, with the result that the fish were not well handled -- leading to waste and a low quality, low price product.

In 1995, the Alaskan North Pacific Fishery Management Council introduced ITQs, an idea devised by free-market economists that allowed government regulation to flow along with the tide of capitalism instead of trying to obstruct it. ITQs were quotas handed out to fishing boat operators on the basis of their historical catch, allowing them to bring in a particular weight of halibut. There was no frantic "derby" any longer, and the ITQs could be bought and sold. The Alaskan halibut industry has now started to revive.

The downside is that ITQs tend to favor the big guy, while the fisheries industry is still the domain of the independent fishing-boat owner. New Zealand's fisheries industry has become more consolidated under ITQs, and New England fishermen worry with good reason about the big guys coming in and pushing them out. Fishermen and fishing communities do have ways to fight back, however, for example by forming co-ops to buy up the ITQs and keep them from falling into the hands of a single big operator. The US Congress, which is considering establishing ITQs among all regional councils, has considered capping the number of ITQs that can be accumulated by any single business operation.

Many fishermen are sold on ITQs. One said of the old scheme, referring to the short fishing seasons, that fishermen had to go out "whether it's a hurricane or your wife's anniversary." Another fisherman who's not enthusiastic about ITQs himself admits that these days many of his colleagues like the idea, their attitude being: "Give me my quota and go away."



* ANOTHER ROAD TRIP (4): After leaving Idaho Falls on my road trip at midmorning on Wednesday, 6 September, the trip north and then west to Spokane was uneventful, and the city was quiet as it usually is. Thursday morning was troublesome. I try to plan things out carefully when I go on a trip and up to that point I had been generally on the mark, but it seems that oxygen wasn't getting to my brain properly because I went from one bungle to the next. This sort of thing is not merely embarrassing but potentially downright dangerous on a long road trip.

The day was not a complete loss, however. My parent's house is in a gated community flanked by the Spokane River and Gonzaga University to the north; to the south, Washington State University (based in Pullman in the farmland in the southeast corner of the state) and Eastern Washington University (based in Cheney just to the west of Spokane) have been building up a collaborative extension campus. They just opened up a library building, five floors including admin offices on the top two floors, a three-minute walk away from the house.

I explored the library -- it was extremely convenient, with study desks, lounges, a snack bar, computer room for the students. It made for a good place to hang out and write with my laptop during the day, the house not being a good environment for getting much work done. It did have an interesting innovation, one that's probably been around for a while but I hadn't spotted before: opening an emergency exit door required leaning on the latch bar for 15 seconds. I had to laugh because it's such a common thing for people to blunder into an emergency exit door without noticing and then get an abrupt wakeup call when the alarm goes off. The fix should have been obvious a long time ago; well, better late than never, there is such a thing as progress.

I visited the family construction firm to see my eldest brother Steve, my other brother Terry being on an extended Italian vacation, and told him: "It's nice to see development in Spokane. It used to seem like it decayed more every time I came home." He replied: "Spokane's booming."

Then he asked: "Say, have you got into Sudoku?" That took me back a bit: "NO. It looks like fun but I keep telling myself: I DON'T HAVE TIME TO GET SUCKED INTO THIS!" He laughed: "It really does suck you in!" He and his wife have become complete Sudoku fanatics; he plays a couple of rounds every morning now. He says he can complete an easy game in a few minutes, so maybe I'll relent and get a handheld Sudoku anyway.

* I spent most of Friday working in the extension campus library. I took off on the return trip early on Saturday morning. The plan was to visit the zoo in Billings, Montana, then go on to Spearfish, South Dakota, to spend the night, getting shots of Devil's Tower in Wyoming on the way there, looping back past Mount Rushmore in the morning on the way home to Colorado. The trip through Montana was uneventful, though the smoke was thick in places; I'd come over a hilltop and a valley would be carpeted with thin haze. The smoke smell was not overpowering but it was unavoidable.

Many of the farms were harvesting at the time, cutting and baling hay or harvesting corn and pumping the ears into trucks. The smell of cut hay was very strong in some places. I have to thank Brian Hayes' book INFRASTRUCTURE for making me more perceptive to such things; I need to find a more detailed book on agritech.

The smoke had mostly faded out by the time I got to Billings. The Billings zoo turned out to be large in terms of its grounds, but in terms of its collection it wasn't much superior to the Idaho Falls zoo. The Billings zoo is generally undeveloped, with the exhibits scattered around and most of the grounds left with dirt paths and semi-tamed brush. The network of manicured paths and landscaping usually found at zoos only existed near the entrance. It did have a few nice exhibits, and certainly there's plenty of room there for expansion. I was lucky enough to visit on a "free day" and didn't have to pay admission; the place was crowded with kids.

The sky began to cloud up as I approached Devil's Tower, but I was lucky enough to get some shots as the sun was setting on it. Again, as with the Tetons, not entirely satisfactory, but it will have to do.

I spent the night in Spearfish, South Dakota, on the edge of the Black Hills. The town's known as Spearfish because local tribes used to spear fish there, incidentally; the tribes also called the region the Black Hills because, compared to the prairies to the west, it was black with trees. The area is very touristy, since so many natural attractions are in the region.

It was threatening clouds when I got up on Sunday, which made me anxious about my chances for getting shots of Mount Rushmore, but it was perfectly sunny when I got there and I picked up some very nice postcard shots. When I first spotted George Washington's face while winding over the highway the exercise didn't quite seem so impressive, but once I got a clear view I had a better sense of scale. Admission is eight bucks, but the visitor facilities are well-developed and laid-out, so that wasn't any objection.

Mount Rushmore

The clouds rolled in as I went over to the nearby Crazy Horse memorial -- big Indian chief carved into mountain -- and it was socked in. I shrugged, having no time to stay, and moved on. In compensation, I did get some shots of wild turkeys -- they're all over the place, much to my surprise, and despite the famous elusive trickiness of the bird, they didn't seem to be too distracted when I stopped to take pictures out of my car window. I had also seen plenty of deer from Devil's Tower on east -- with far too many lying dead alongside the road.

My neighbor Peggy told me later that she grew up on a tribal reservation in the region, being the daughter of a government official, and that I hadn't missed too much at the Crazy Horse memorial. It's one of these projects that the backers work on intermittently when they get the funds. It won't be completed for a long time; she called it was a "tourist trap" and had never paid it much attention when she lived in the area. She also told me that wild turkeys were not common when she lived there, suggesting they had been introduced as game birds.

Then on home, uneventfully. It was a bit startling to drive out of the Black Hills because the transition between forest and prairie is about as abrupt as a seashore: roll down out of the hills and it's flat open land as far as the eye can see. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* INFRASTRUCTURE -- OIL & GAS (3): The "media stars" of the oil industry are the offshore rigs, and not without reason: offshore oil rigs can be very impressive structures.

Exploratory drilling is done by a mobile drilling unit, in the form of a semisubmersible ship or barge that stays in one place using anchors or a thruster system. Shallow-water "jack-up units", consisting of a floating platform with retractable legs, are also used for exploration. Production rigs are much bigger. They come in two forms: those with fixed support structures down to the seafloor, with such structures sometimes taller than any land building, and those that are anchored in place, which are used for water too deep to permit use of a fixed support structure.

* Once an oil well is in production, it's an unspectacular structure, consisting of an arrangement of valves known as a "christmas tree" and possibly a pump. The christmas tree's valves allow taking samples and adjusting pressure, as well as providing redundancy, with backup valves in case primary valves fail.

Pumps are required when the pressure of the oil falls to the point where the oil no longer rises to the surface on its own. The basic principle of the pump is simple: a cylinder with a piston in it is installed down the hole at the subterranean level of the oil. The piston has valves in it that admit oil; when the piston falls the cylinder fills up with oil, when the piston rises the valves close and the oil is pulled up the hole.

The piston is connected to the surface through a long metal "sucker rod", with the surface end connected to a "sucker rod pump" or "nodding donkey pump". They're common here in northeast Colorado; I call them "hammerhead pumps" myself, and everyone knows exactly what I'm referring to, though I'm not sure if these units are used for pumping water of oil. In any case, they consist of a set of heavy rotating arms spun around by an electric motor or sometimes a natural gas engine, with linkages to a big "teeter-totter" assembly like an oversized hammer, with the head pointing away from the rotating arm assembly. The rotating arms rock the hammer assembly up and down; cables on the hammerhead lift the sucker rod up and down, up and down.

nodding donkey pumps

Nodding donkey pumps are somewhat mesmerizing to watch because they move at a leisurely pace, the rotating arms spinning around and the hammer assembly nodding up and down in a relaxed fashion. They will generally only be run for a few hours a day, since draining all the oil around the bottom of the well will disturb the underground movement of oil and fluids, possibly shutting down the well's production prematurely.

* Everybody knows that the raw oil that comes out of a well has to go to a refinery to be converted into usable form. What's not so well known is that some "field processing" has to be performed before it can be sent to the refinery in the first place.

An oil field will have a field-processing station near a set of wellheads, with the station fed by a set of "flow lines" from the wells. The main task is to separate the flow into oil, gas, and salt water. The simplest piece of gear available to do this is a "settling tank", a tank with one input pipe and three output pipes, with the output pipes at different levels -- the top for gas, the middle for oil, the bottom for salt water. A "sight glass" fitted to the tank is used to check water and oil levels.

The settling tank of course works by simple settling, which means it's slow and only appropriate for wells with low output. Systems called "separators" achieve higher throughput by operating under pressure; they have rounded forms to endure the pressure and feature gauges and relief valves. One form involves a long pressure vessel with internal baffles on the bottom of the tank that collect droplets of liquid while the gaseous stream goes down to the far end of the tank to be drawn off. A variation involves two horizontal barrels stacked on top of each other.

Separators do a good job of separating gas and oil, but not such a good job of getting rid of the salt water. The oil and water are mixed in a frothy emulsion; a "heater-treater", a horizontal or vertical vessel with a heater underneath, often fueled by natural gas from the well, is used to sort out the froth. The heat breaks down the emulsion, with the oil then drawn off the top and the salt water from the bottom. The water has to be removed because it can combine with hydrocarbons to form a slushy material known as a "hydrate" that can clog oil pipelines. The water can't be just dumped; not only is it salty, but as might be expected from its earlier association with oil, it's none too clean. The best thing to be done with it is pump it down the well, and in fact in some cases this can be done in such a way as to increase well production.

The field processing station, incidentally, is surrounded by a deep bed of gravel. This soaks up spills and makes such spills easier to spot and clean up. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A note in BUSINESS WEEK described the latest innovation in anti-theft systems: an alarm system that fills up a shop being burglarized with fog, just like that used in theatrical productions. The fog makes it hard to spot loot and also to look out for the law, and so burglars are inclined to give it up and leave immediately. The fog systems are relatively inexpensive and are gaining popularity -- though some in the business worry that kids might start breaking windows just to see the fog machine going off.

* The passenger bus seems like a stodgy technology, but according to an article in THE ECONOMIST, a group of Dutch researchers is trying to bring the technology into the 21st century. The Delft University of Technology's "Superbus" is an electric vehicle, streamlined and low-slung, a configuration permitted by the fact that it doesn't have a central aisle as do ordinary passenger buses. Instead, there's a row of doors on each side of the vehicle, giving direct access to the 30-something seats. The Superbus will be routed to passengers who ask to be picked up using a mobile phone. Once the vehicle has a full load, it would then move onto a dedicated roadway or "Supertrack" to transit to another locale at 250 KPH (155 MPH).

Delft Superbus

The Superbus is just a concept right now, and critics question whether it is a particular good solution to urban transit problems. However, it certainly makes the prospect of riding on a bus sound like a lot more fun.

* MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW had an interesting article on another gimmick: an experimental "micro-reformer" that converts methanol into hydrogen for fuel cells, based on layered printing technology. The process involves laying down hundreds of layers of different types of inks variously containing polymers, metals, and ceramics to form a three-dimensional structure incorporating hollow passages and chambers. The technology can also be used to fabricate other microsystems, such as tiny electrical generators or cheap tire-pressure sensors.

Laying down each layer involves not only building up components but also specifying structural elements to guide the construction of the next layer. Each layer is cured by ultraviolet light after being laid down, and the complete assembly is fired at high temperature. The materials have to be designed to shrink down at the same rate during firing. The micro-reformer is about the size of two dominoes and features 300 layers, with the system featuring 33 specific components, including heating coils and catalyst beds. Methanol is fed into the device, and a combination of steam and catalysts generates the hydrogen.

The company working on the device claims it will be low cost, but there are skeptics who wonder if the device will be manufacturable. Tweaking a lab prototype into working is not the same as putting it into mass production. As the industrial saying goes: anyone can build one.

* I got to poking around on Microsoft updates and decided to download a copy of a beta-test Internet Explorer 7 web browser. It turns out to have some interesting features:

* One fun thing about tinkering with IE7 was that it had been a long time since I'd played with pre-release software, and though IE7 was usable, it obviously needed more time in the oven, since it occasionally did things like failing to work with all supposedly available features, dropping menus, locking up, and simply losing its little bit brain.

That was another shrug; that's the way beta software is. Once upon a time, when I was in factory support, a sales rep asked to get pre-release software for a customer. I was naive at the time, and shipped it out on request. Then the sales rep called back in a state of distress: "The customer got the pre-release software and he says it's full of bugs!"

I just sat there dumbfounded for a few seconds, and the following conversation wasn't all that constructive. I could not, simply could not, get through to the sales rep and convince him that, effectively by definition, pre-release software doesn't work right. At least I managed not to call him any names. I must immediately add that this was a very extreme act of stupidity for the sales reps I dealt with, far from typical. After that, people who asked me for pre-release software could expect to get a thorough interrogation to make sure they knew what they were asking for.



* READ IT AND WEEP: While performing some searches on Google, I stumbled across an article titled:

   Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity 
   With New "Intelligent Falling" Theory.

-- from a site titled: "THE ONION -- America's Finest News Source". Edited down, the article read:


Scientists from the Evangelical Center for Faith-Based Reasoning (ECFR) in Kansas City are now asserting that the long-held "theory of gravity" is flawed, and are proposing a better alternative: the theory of Intelligent Falling (IF). Says EFCR researcher Gabriel Burdett, who specializes in evangelical physics: "Things fall not because they are acted upon by a gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down."

Dr. Burdett added: "Gravity -- which is taught to our children as a law -- is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force." Burdett and others at the ECFR point out that conventional scientific thinking on gravity is riddled with inconsistencies. Even critics of IF admit that Einstein's theory of gravity is not reconcilable with quantum theories of gravity -- and IF advocates say that shows the mainstream concept of gravity is a theory in crisis.

IF researchers add that mainstream theory about gravity cannot explain such matters as the ascent of Jesus Christ into Heaven or the fall of the Satan into Hell. The researchers believe that not only does IF provide a comprehensive theory, but that it leads inevitably to the Holy Grail of physics, the search for a unified field theory to unite the four forces of the Universe into a single force. Says Dr. Burdett: "Readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus Christ."


I don't think I've laughed that hard for a long time. I had vaguely heard of THE ONION before but never followed up on it. It's also available in print; Wikipedia says it started out as a venture by University of Wisconsin Madison students in the late 1980s, but remained a local phenomenon until THE ONION website went online in 1996. Apparently some of the articles end up propagating over the internet by people who think they are for real.

There was another article along the same lines titled: "Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law Of Thermodynamics", with one of the supposed lobbyists claiming: "My daughter's schoolbooks tell her that we live in a world ruled by disorder. That's a direct contradiction of what it says in the Bible ... " Of course THE ONION has plenty of other targets, with titles including:

   North Korea Detonates 40 Years Of GDP

   Iraqi Leaders Call For Moment Of Violence During Ramadan

   Bush Urges Nation To Be Quiet For A Minute While He Tries To Think

   Baggage-Handling Mixup Sends Dirty Bomb To Saint Louis

   Mars Rover Beginning To Hate Mars

   Recurring Zhang Ziyi Fantasy Involves Getting Kicked In The Face

   New Nietzschean Diet:  Eat What You Fear Most

The website format is something like CNN.com Lite and the style is completely deadpan; some articles are just dumb, others are brilliantly written. It's all clearly equal-opportunity mockery and so nobody can get too offended -- or maybe everybody can take offense.

As a parting shot, I have to cite an article from the sci-tech pages on the site, titled:

   Army Of Identical Scientists Demands Legislative Support For Cloning

The text, again edited down, read as follows:


Thousands of identical scientists gathered in Washington DC this week to encourage lawmakers to relax restrictions on the cloning of human beings. Dr. Gene Krupkauer, founder of the lobbying group Like-Minded Scientists For Cloning Advancement (LMSCA) told reporters: "We believe that Congress needs to fund this important research and appreciate the views of the many members of the public who support the need for human cloning." The LMSCA believes that human cloning will benefit research into organ transplants and telepathy.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) commented after a meeting with Dr. Gene Krupkauer, one of the senior members of the LSCA and a long-time associate of LMSCA fonder Dr. Krupkauer, that he was impressed by the dedication of the group, having spoken to the same man in six different places over the weekend. Said Senator McCain: "Dedication like that gets my attention. I'm still cautious about human cloning, but that man has certainly managed to put a distinctive face on the issue."

LMSCA officials attribute the solidarity of their movement to the late Dr. Gene Krupkauer of MIT, a pioneer in human cloning technology who died in 1987. Dr. Krupkauer had attempted to promote human cloning technology in the 1970s, only to run into criticism, legal obstacles, and resistance from the MIT administration. Dr. Krupkauer then created his own private research institute, which at the time of his death was staffed by 256 identical researchers. The LMSCA group was established in 2002 by alumni of the institute.

Washington insiders are impressed at the way that the LMSCA has made its influence felt inside the Beltway. Says political reporter Molly van Steen: "Top lobbying firms may have more cash, but LMSCA seems to have a steadily increasing supply of dedicated volunteers."

At an address to the group at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel on Tuesday evening, LSMCA founder Dr. Krupkauer said that Congress should "heed the wishes of the 2.1 million people who currently support, and the 4.2 million people who soon will support, cloning research. There is still resistance to cloning out there, but the day will come and soon when the value of cloning is apparent to everyone, creating a world in which we will all benefit. If you take the vote in, say, 18 years, there will be only one result."

Dr. Krupkauer's speech was often interrupted by the thunderous, synchronized applause of his supporters. After the event one of the audience, Dr. Gene Krupkauer, told this reporter: "I believe I speak for all my colleagues in saying that Dr. Krupkauer's speech said exactly what we had all been thinking. If only there were more like him!"




* ROCK & A HARD PLACE: Over the past few weeks, any lingering hopeful optimism that the US occupation of Iraq seemed to be heading in a positive direction has dissipated in a storm of violence and bloodshed. Both American and British generals have flatly stated to the press that the current strategy is not working; senior Bush II Administration officials say things need to be rethought; and James Baker, the highly respected secretary of state to the Bush I Administration and the Bush family "consigliere", is heading a bipartisan committee to recommend a new course of action.

The ugly tangle of Iraq includes many different elements, such as the determination of Islamic "jihadis" to take on the USA, but now the predominant aspect of the struggle is the seemingly endless fight between Sunni and Shia Muslim, with the foreign forces caught in the crossfire. An article from BBC.com ("Long Path To Iraq's Sectarian Split" by David Gritten) gave some background on the deep roots of the current struggle.

Sunni and Shia Muslim share core common beliefs while differing in many details of doctrine and practice. The fundamental split between the two main branches of Islam derived from a dispute over the line of descent of authority from the Prophet Mohammed after his death in 632 AD. One faction elected Abu Bakr as the next leader, or "caliph", of the community, but others declared that the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali, was the rightful successor.

Ali did eventually become the fourth caliph, but his legitimacy was disputed, leading to the murder of him and his wife Fatima in 661 and replacement by his chief adversary, Muawiya. Ali's sons Hassan and Hussein opposed Muawiya and his successor, Yazid, leading to open war. Hassan was poisoned in 669 and Hussein was killed in battle near Karbala in 680. Ali, Hassan and Hussein became the first three of the "12 Imams" who Shia Muslims claim as the divinely-appointed leaders of the Muslim community. The twelfth Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, is said by legend to have disappeared from a cave below a mosque in Samarra, with Shias still awaiting the return of "Hidden Imam", whose arrival will reverse their fortunes and bring in an era of divine justice. (There is a minority faction of Shia Islam that only recognizes 7 Imams, making them "Seveners" as opposed to "Twelvers".) The violent deaths of the first three Shia Imams gave Shiite Islam a tradition of martyrdom, which would become a tradition for Shiites in general -- long outnumbered by the Sunnis, the Shiites have long suffered accordingly.

The Prophet did not like the concept of priests, and the Sunnis have tried hard to avoid setting up a priesthood of any sort. There are respected Islamic scholars in Sunni Islam, but their prestige is from their learning of the Sunna, the words of the Prophet, and not enforced by any formal position assigned by the Sunni religious organization. Sunni Muslims tend to oppose Shiites for their mullahs, who seem to Sunnis to constitute nothing more than a priesthood, and for other doctrinal differences.

Most of Muslims in the Middle East are Sunnis; in Iran, Shiites are 89% of the population, but though Iraq is about 60% Shiite -- with about 37% Sunnis split between Arabs and Kurds, the remainder being Christians and other minority religions -- the Shiites have long been the underdogs. Under the Sunni Ottoman Turk empire, which ruled the Middle East for almost 400 years, Sunnis ran Iraq. During World War I, the British encouraged uprisings to undermine Ottoman rule, promising locals independence as a reward. Instead, the British and French carved up the domain liberated from the Ottoman Turks into "mandates", with the British mandate including Iraq. A British-dominated monarchy was set up; the pattern of Sunni dominance of their Shiite brethren remained.

The British left Iraq in the 1930s. The monarchy was overthrown by a military coup in 1958, the king being gruesomely torn apart by a mob. Five years later, another coup brought the Arab Socialist Baath Party to power, which would eventually be controlled by Saddam Hussein. The revolutionary changes in Iraq still did not change the status quo for Shiites, continuing their oppression under Sunni rule. Shiites began to mobilize around prominent clerics in an attempt to improve their lot, though Saddam Hussein's security services did whatever was necessary to retain control.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was a signal to Iraqi Shiites. In 1980, Shiite militants tried to assassinate the Iraqi deputy prime minister, and in retaliation Saddam ordered the execution of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqi Sadr, uncle of the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. It was the first time such a senior Shiite cleric had been killed, and it was just a start. Iraqi Shiite restlessness was one of the reasons Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1981, and in parallel with the war against Iran, Saddam Hussein moved against Iraqi Shiites, giving them a further taste of martyrdom. Iraqi Shiites were expelled, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered; their religious practices were curtailed and pilgrimages to holy shrines limited.

Following Saddam Hussein's defeat by an American-led coalition in 1991 after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi Shiites in the south rose up. The Americans listened to their Sunni Saudi friends and stood by while the Shiite insurgency was brutally crushed. There matters stood for over a decade, until the US overthrew Saddam Hussein themselves in 2003 and attempted to set up a representative democracy in Iraq. What the Americans didn't seem to realize in any strong way at the time was that they had upset the long-established social order: Shiites now had the prospect of ruling Iraq. Sunnis were accordingly horrified.

Although the Americans were the main target of Iraq's insurgency at first, gradually fighting between Sunnis and Shiites escalated to the point where the war against the Americans was almost a sideshow. Sunni insurgents attacked Shia Islam's most important shrines at Karbala, Najaf and Samarra and killed many Shia politicians, clerics, soldiers, police and civilians. Shiites have retaliated; every day the news lists body counts generated by sectarian killings, many being people picked up and random, tied up, tortured, and murdered.

Many Iraqis downplay the long-standing split between Sunni and Shiite as the source of the trouble, pointing out that there are old divisions along ideological and social lines that have nothing directly to do with religion that also contribute to the violence. Whatever the actual case, the fighting has reached a ghastly pitch, and few expect it to do much more than just get worse.



* ANOTHER ROAD TRIP (3): I finished my lightning national parks tour on my road trip after sundown Tuesday, 5 September. Teton National Park empties into the town of Jackson at the south, a little glittering trendy yuppie tourist trap of a town all lit up like a Christmas tree at night. I found the place sparkling and amusing, if confusing to navigate while trying to find the highway to take me over the hills to Idaho Falls. I stopped and got directions, and it turned out I was on the right road after all. It's nice to think I've screwed up only to find out I got it right after all. Usually when I think I've screwed up -- I have.

The trip over the hills in the dark was a bit nerve-wracking because I was tired and it was the kind of terrain where a large four-footed animal was likely to pop out of the side of the road unexpectedly. Fortunately the only four-legged creature to cross the road in the darkness in front of me was a skunk. I didn't come close to hitting him, which was just as well for both of us.

I got into Idaho Falls late and crashed out at a motel. The next morning I went to a Walmart to pick up some necessities I'd been in too much of a hurry to pack along; mint mouthwash tends to be staple of mine while traveling, it helps eliminate the sensation of having had something crawl into my mouth and die there. I'd also left all my memory card adapters at home -- I knew I had to forget something since I'd done the trip planning in a hurry -- and had no way to get the pictures from my cameras into my laptop to view and sort them out.

However, that worked out OK. I found a little USB adapter box that I could cable up to the laptop and plug in the memory cards. It looked like a disc drive as far as the laptop was concerned. I'd had something like it before, but it only worked with the big Compact Flash cards and it was clumsy to use, requiring a special driver. This new reader just plugged in and worked, no fuss at all. We've come a ways from the early 1990s, when getting a new device to work with a PC was almost always an exercise in pain and frustration. In any case, I'd been using my laptop and a local net connection at home to get pix into my desktop PC, but now I had a tool to get them into the desktop directly.

That done, I visited the local airport to see if there were any interesting flying machines to shoot. This turns out to be a good habit for a planespotter, since I got pix of a Dassault Falcon 900 bizjet, an elegant item I'd been after for a while; a de Havilland Canada Chipmunk trainer in immaculate RCAF airshow colors; and the extremely rare Douglas Skyshark. Douglas Aircraft had built the Skyraider attack aircraft just after World War II. It was a big, tough brute of an aircraft powered by a single radial piston engine, and fought in both Korea and particularly Vietnam, where it had a good reputation with the ground troops for its ability to carry lots of munitions and orbit overhead for hours, plastering the enemy on demand. The Skyshark was an attempt to build a turboprop-powered Skyraider that foundered on the immaturity of turboprop technology at the time; they could never get the gearbox to work right.

Thence to the zoo. The Idaho Falls Zoo was probably the smallest zoo I've ever gone to that deserved to be called a zoo without sneering, but the admission price was appropriate and, considering the compact size, it wasn't a bad job by any means. It had a nice little otter pool, a flamingo pool, a small walk-in aviary, donkeys and llamas in the petting zoo, and lion and tiger pits; certainly worth the price. The zoo was a component of the city park, a pleasant place with a nice central fountain consisting of concrete pillars in a pool with a spillway. There was also an amusement park there, though it hardly looked like much of interest to anyone over the age of six, amounting to a glorified miniature golf course with some tacky carny rides added.

Still, as I was headed out of town to go north I sensed that things were becoming more sophisticated in Idaho Falls. There seemed to be smattering of high-tech industries there, no doubt exploiting low land and operating costs, and on the west side of town I went through what looked like a cutting-edge yuppie development, with condominiums, trendy restaurants, and so on.

Idaho Falls eagle statuary

I was particularly struck by a fountain placed in a traffic roundabout at the core of the development. It looked like something out of a major theme park, with stones set up in a tower to simulate a mountaintop with water cascading down the sides, a full-sized bronze statue of a cougar prowling around the bottom, a huge bronze eagle wheeling around one end, and another big bronze eagle alighting on a nest with two chicks on the other end. I got some great pix of the thing, but it hardly needed much skill: I was handed it on a platter.

The fountain was impressive, not merely because it was visually striking, but because it was such an obvious expense -- hundreds of thousands of bucks easy, if it cost a million I wouldn't be surprised. Idaho Falls seems to be in a transition between the farm community it once was and the more cosmopolitan city it is likely to be in the future. It might be interesting to go through ten years from now. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* INFRASTRUCTURE -- OIL & GAS (2): The last installment in this series covered traditional oil drilling derrick technology, but new technology has been introduced. For example, the rotary table / kelly drive system works well, but there's a more convenient way, known as "top drive". This involves an electric motor mounted on vertical rails above the drill string, not only making drive simpler but also being useful to couple and uncouple pipe segments. The price to be paid is that a stronger and heavier derrick is needed, and a heavier rig is more troublesome to move around when the time comes to transfer to a new site.

Another relatively new gimmick is to put the drive motor at the bottom of the string, where it drives the bit directly. The motor is hydraulic, at least in the broad sense, being driven by the stream of drilling mud that has to be pumped down the hole anyway. A "down-hole" motor can be guided more easily, allowing the hole to be deflected horizontally to access a wider underground oilfield. There are tales that such tricks have been used by one country to drill across the border of a neighbor to steal oil deposits.

Drilling mud, not so incidentally, is a big part of the cost of drilling. The mud is usually made from a type of clay known as "bentonite"; the density can be increased by adding barite, a type of barium ore. The mud is stored in a tank or pit and driven down the hole with a mud pump, to vent from holes in the bit. The mud comes back up through the space between the pipe string and the walls of the hole. The drill crew keeps an eye on the return mud flow, since it provides some indication of what's going on at the bottom of the hole.

* A drill site will include the rig with its derrick; the mud pump and tank or pit; three or four "prime movers", meaning big diesel electric generators to run the gear; racks of pipe and "casing" (see below); and various trailers to provide facilities for the people who handle the bits or "tools", or the geologists who "log" the geologic strata the hole bores through.

* As mentioned, gushers are not welcome in the oil industry. At the very least, they create a serious mess; at the worst, they can wreck the drill rig, cause fires, and hurt people. To prevent a gusher, there's a set of valves called a "blowout preventer" at the top of the hole under the deck of the drilling rig. The valve system monitors the back pressure of mud coming up out of the hole to watch for anomalies; for example, it's a bad sign if the mud is still coming back up even when the mud pump is shut down.

Given adequate bad signs, the valves snap shut; if that's not enough, other measures, such as crushing the top of the well shut, are used as a backup. The blowout preventer is hydraulically operated. It has a dual set of controls and a backup reservoir of hydraulic fluid in steel cylinders in case the primary hydraulic pump goes down.

* Once the hole is bored, it must be cased and cemented. Casing, mentioned above, is steel pipe that lines the hole. Deep wells may have several concentric strings of casing, though only the innermost string goes all the way to the bottom of the well. Since pipe is reused while casing is not, casing is a much greater cost for drilling than pipe.

Cementing involves sealing the casing to the walls of the hole with cement. This is a tricky operation since the cement has to be initially driven down through the casing, with mud used to force the cement out the bottom of the well and back up the sides. If it's not done right, the cement plugs the hole.

Even after being cased and cemented, the well is still not ready to draw oil. The general public image of an underground oil deposit is an underground lake of oil, but the reality is that the oil is dispersed in a matrix of solid rock. The deposit has to be "fracked" or fractured using explosives, acids, or high-pressure water; then sand or a "proppant" made of synthetic granules is pumped in to keep the fractured stone from forming back up again.

Obviously, there's only so much of a deposit that can be extracted using such approaches, with the well abandoned once diminishing financial returns set in even though there's still plenty of oil down below. Rising oil prices raise the limit of diminishing returns, and now oil companies are exerting themselves to obtain more oil from a well than in the past. With new techniques, wells that were once abandoned are now being reopened and operating at a profit. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GOING THE EXTRA MILE: A recent article in POPULAR SCIENCE ("The Race To 100 MPG" by Billy Baker, September 2006) reviewed a set of new automotive technologies being developed to obtain dramatic improvements in gas mileage.

One scheme, now being pursued by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Advanced Technology Division, is taking a different angle on regenerative braking -- the scheme in which the energy normally lost in braking is stored up for re-use in acceleration. The traditional approach is to use an electric motor-generator attached to the drive train, which generates power in braking and stores it in a bank of batteries, the power in the batteries then being used to drive the motor-generator when the car starts up again.

Batteries are heavy, expensive, and have limited cycling lives, so the EPA researchers are considering an alternative, which they call a "hydraulic" system, though it's more like a hydraulic-pneumatic scheme. Such a vehicle would feature rear-wheel drive, with the rear wheels connected to a hydraulic pump-motor. On braking, hydraulic fluid would be pumped into a reservoir, which would pressurize nitrogen gas in a second reservoir. On acceleration, the pressurized nitrogen gas would drive the hydraulic pump-motor.

The car would have a conventional engine, but it would drive a pump instead of a normal drive train, contributing pressure to keep the rear-wheel pump-motor going. EPA officials are enthusiastic about the technology, claiming that it is lighter and potentially cheaper than the traditional regenerative approach, with the elimination of the classic drivetrain being a big plus. United Parcel Service (UPS) is helping out with the program, with tests of the system to be performed in modified UPS trucks. Car companies and the military are also interested.

* Another scheme, being developed by two researchers at Texas A&M University, Mark Holtzapple and Andrew Rabroker, involves a new internal-combustion engine that they call the "StarRotor". It looks less like a classic piston engine than it does a compressor for an air conditioner, which is what it originally started out to be.

The StarRotor involves an intake compressor stage using a rotor-type compressor, which in this case looks like an eight-point star with smooth concave curves between the points, rotating on the engine driveshaft around the edges of a chamber with the same configuration but larger in diameter, to generate compressed air. The compressed air is pushed through a heat exchanger where it obtains energy from the engine exhaust, "preheating" the air to provide more energy.

The preheated air is then driven into a combustor where it is mixed with fuel and ignited, with the hot output driven into a rotary motor on the driveshaft with much the same configuration as the input compressor. The exhaust is piped out through the heat exchanger, preheating the input air as mentioned. The StarRotor could probably classified as a turbine engine, if an unorthdox one.

The Texas A&M researchers point out that a conventional piston engine is about 30% energy efficient under best conditions, and considerably less efficient under typical driving conditions. In contrast, the StarRotor's conversion efficiency ranges from 45% to 65% under all driving conditions. They claim they can easily double and possibly triple fuel efficiency. It's a slick idea, work worth supporting, but also worth taking a "wait and see" attitude on.

* The third and last item in the article was the Aptera, a three-wheeled two-seater vehicle being built by Accelerated Composites of Carlsbad, California, run by inventor Steve Fambro. It's a teardrop-shaped machine, two wheels forward and one wheel in the rear, with a composite body, tandem seating, and a empty weight of about 385 kilograms (850 pounds). Fambro's looking at a hybrid diesel power system and claims that the Aptera could get over 128 kilometers per liter (300 miles per gallon), with a sales price of $20,000 USD.

This is, to me at least, one of the most interesting items on the list, since I would like to have a vehicle along such lines. I do have some skepticism about Fambro's claims -- 42.5 KPL (100 MPG) would be more credible and would make everybody happy, and $20,000 USD for a two-seater is a bit much. There's absolutely nothing to prevent development of a low-cost three-wheel two-seater with existing technology except for production tooling and market inertia, and I would think a less aggressive concept would be a better first step. Refinements could be added later.

However, although most of these cute gimmicks are not likely to ever come to much, and in fact a few of them are likely to end up being outright scams, it is in the nature of technological evolution that a few are going to win big. I can't help but believe that the more tinkering we do, the better. Twenty years from now, most of these ideas will seem comical, except for the ones that become standard practice but seemed just as ridiculous at the outset.

The Kremer X-Prize Foundation, which set up a prize for the first private manned spaceflight, is now setting up a prize for the first car to get 100 MPG and sell a given number of units. The size of the prize hasn't been decided yet, but foundation officials are talking $25 million USD.

* A brief article in the same issue of POPULAR SCIENCE discussed Japanese "kei (light)" cars, which are four-seaters with maximum dimensions of 3.35 meters in length, 2 meters in height, and 1.5 meters in width (11 x 6.6 x 4.9 feet), with engine displacement of no more than 660 cc and power no great than 47 kW (83 HP). The government encourages them by giving kei drivers a permit to park free in big cities, and in terms of unit volume they're about a third of the Japanese car market.

Mitsubishi i-Car

Obviously most keis are not muscle cars, but Mitsubishi has just introduced the new "i" model that offers both roominess and performance. While most keis are front engine / front-wheel drive machines, the Mitsubishi "i" car has a rear engine and all-wheel drive. The engine is 659 cc turbocharged three-cylinder unit with twelve valves and variable valve timing, with an electronic throttle system. The vehicle is highly streamlined, including a belly undertray, and has a top speed of 175 KPH (110 MPH), with fuel economy of 18.3 KPL (43 MPG).

I found the keis interesting because my new Toyota Yaris / Vitz is close to the bottom of the car size range in the US, and wondered how the keis compare. It turns out that the keis are about 85% the size of a Yaris. There's no plan to sell keis in the USA.



* AFRICA@HOME: One of the more interesting exercises in computing over the past decade has been "SETI@home", in which a "supercomputer" was built by linking the PCs of volunteers over the internet to examine radio telescope signals for signs of extraterrestrial communications. Users ran a "screen saver" on their PCs that crunched on the radio data when the PC was otherwise idle, and then reported the results back to a central server. SETI@home has since been followed by similar PC networks to determine the folding configurations of proteins and the keys to digital ciphers.

Networking PCs is almost useless for problems that involve continuous interactions between pieces of the puzzle. Weather simulations, for example, chop the atmosphere up into blocks, with each phase of the simulation conducted by updating the "state" of each block sequentially, using the current states of neighboring blocks; the smaller the dimensions of the blocks, the better the simulation. Passing the state data of neighbors over the internet would slow a weather simulation down to a crawl. However, the scheme works very well for problems that can be chopped up into modules that can be worked on independently. In cracking a cipher key, for example, each PC in the network gets a range of cipher key candidates to check and runs through the list on its own, reporting back to the central server whether a key match was found or not.

According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Coming Down To Earth" 15 July 2006), a new PC network named "Africa@home" is working to help defeat malaria, a disease that kills a million people a year, mostly in tropical regions. Africa@home is a collaboration between the Swiss Tropical Institute, the Center for European Nuclear Research (CERN in its French acronym) in Geneva, and a group of universities, including three in Africa.

The effort is focused on the epidemiology of malaria, determining where and how the disease spreads and testing out options for controlling it. The institute had written software to examine the epidemiology of malaria, but didn't have the computing power to make it very effective. CERN, the birthplace of the World Wide Web, is a major computing center, and CERN computer scientists had taken an interest in SETI@home and its successors, developing tools to help implement similar networks.

The university group took the tools and developed a program named "MalariaControl.net", which was basically the institute's epidemiological studies software rebuilt to operate over a network of PCs. MalariaControl.net can balance a wide range of factors -- geography, climate at different times of the year, density of mosquitoes (which carry the disease), density of the human population -- and see how the spread of the disease is affected by disease control measures, such as various drugs, pesticide-laden mosquito nets, and proposed vaccines. A test run with 500 PCs has been completed, with the initial operational phase to link together a thousand PCs made available by volunteers.



* NOC BLUES: Exxon-Mobil, the oil giant, is the world's richest company, worth over $400 billion USD. What comes as a surprise is that in terms of the oil deposits under its control, it ranks 14th in Big Oil. The other 13 are the "national oil companies (NOCs)", which control 90% of the world's oil. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Oil's Dark Secret", 12 August 2006), what makes this scary is that the NOCs aren't always all that well-run.

One of the worst examples, not only of the limitations of NOCs but also of heavy-handed governments, is Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the Venezuelan state oil company. Venezuela got into the oil business early in the 20th century when foreign firms, like Royal Dutch Shell, set up shop, and by the 1930s the country was the world's second-biggest oil producer. It is now one of the main sources of oil for the USA, and it retains vast reserves -- though mostly of "ultra-heavy" oil, a honey-thick, acidic concoction that is troublesome to refine.

The Venezuelan government nationalized the oil industry in the 1970s, but the bureaucrats were careful in how they did it. Mexico's long-standing national oil company, PEMEX, had proven a example of incompetence and corruption, and so PDVSA became an umbrella organization over what amounted to foreign concessions, operated in partnership. It was a sensible bargain and PDVSA became a model NOC, producing as much oil as PEMEX with a third of the staff.

In the 1990s, PDVSA initiated a program to ramp up output by increasing its own production while farming out marginal fields for foreign firms to exploit, with PDVSA taking a royalty on production from those fields. By 1998, production was halfway to target, with PDVSA officials looking forward to further exertions. That's when the trouble began. Oil prices were low, and since the marginal fields were not all that productive, so were the royalties paid to Venezuela -- though it was money that wouldn't have been in the pocket otherwise. It was an election year and so the government decided to cut PDVSA's investment budget.

Economics might have forced the cuts, but Venezuelan production immediately started to fall. As mentioned, Venezuelan oil tends toward the nasty, and worse, it's hard to find much of it in any one place: the country needs ten times as many wells as Saudi Arabia to produce a third as much oil. This was not evidence of any incompetence on the part of PDVSA, it was just the way Venezuelan oil is.

The incompetence took place higher up. When Hugo Chavez became president in 1999, he accelerated the process of milking PDVSA, taking the profits and holding back investments. In 1997, the firm was investing $5.4 billion USD in oil development; by 2000, it had fallen to $2.5 billion USD. Chavez also accused the firm of profiteering at the "people's expense" and didn't like the autonomy of its management; he installed his own cronies to extend his control over the organization.

The natural result was resentment, leading to a general strike in 2002 in which half of PDVSA's workers, including the management and the skilled technicals who ran things, went off the job. Oil production plummeted for two months. Chavez took decisive action in response: he fired the strikers, getting rid of the firm's competent managers and the technicals who knew how to keep Venezuela's finicky oil wells running. The management was replaced by more cronies, and inexperienced new technicals were hired. Unfortunately for Venezuela, many of the old wells were so hard to keep going that the two-month shutdown killed them off, and so even if the new people had been up to the job, production had been degraded in a way that would be difficult to reverse.

The new PDVSA is a tool of the government, more focused on fulfilling Chavez's theatrical dreams of a Latin American empire backed by oil wealth than actually making money, with senior positions assigned to political cronies regardless of their qualifications. The company has become more secretive. Oil production has slumped; it popped back up for a time, but has since resumed its fall. Venezuela's oil revenues have only been kept afloat by high oil prices, and their recent fall must be proving painful.

* It must be emphasized that PDVSA is an unusually bad example of a NOC, but the NOCs tend to share common problems. Political meddling is common: Russia's Gazprom and Rosneft end up being instruments of the Kremlin's foreign policy, and the governments of China and India force their NOCs to sell gasoline at below-market prices to local consumers. In some places state interference is incoherent: Bolivia has nationalized the nation's oil industry three separate times.

The NOCs often operate under a level of secrecy that would be illegal for a multinational corporation. Nobody trusts Saudi Arabian or Kuwaiti estimates of their oil reserves, since the source data remains a mystery. The NOCs are also generally underfunded, since when things get tight it's easier to cut their budgets than reduce the pay of government officials or cut back on public health care.

The notion that one has to spend money to make money seems to be lost on many governments. Iran, run by mullahs and Islamic revolutionaries with little concept of business, pumps less oil now than it did in 1979 despite the country's huge reserves. The Russian oil industry, through profitable for the moment, is not healthy under the country's increasingly heavy-handed government.

Norway's NOC, Statoil, is regarded as the best-run of the lot, generally because the Norwegian government is run by professionals, not revolutionaries or authoritarians. However, Saudi Arabia's ARAMCO is also well-regarded despite the semi-authoritarian nature of the country, because of the basic shrewdness of the Saudi royal family. The princes do nothing abruptly, tend to operate by consensus, highly respect the bottom line, and have the good sense not to try to tinker with things that are working. If oil company managers are making profits, they get the political support they need, and the princes don't try to tell them how to get the job done.

Brazil's PetroBras and Malaysia's Petronas are also well-run, with the national governments allowing foreign oil firms to bid against the NOCs for oil rights. This keeps the NOCs honest and efficient, and gives the government the best deal available. Brazil's oil reserves are fairly modest, but PetroBras still remains highly profitable due to the business sense of the company's management. Ironically, compared to Venezuela's PDVSA, Brazil's limited oil reserves have almost amounted to a benefit, since government bureaucrats couldn't convince themselves that their NOC was a cash cow to be milked to death.

* BORING DOWN: In related news, although much attention has been paid to "peakists" -- oil analysts who believe that oil production has already peaked or will peak soon -- the more general belief in the oil industry is that high oil prices will spur new exploration and production methods. Such efforts will make open up access to vast quantities of fuel sources whose exploitation had previously been regarded as uneconomical.

As reported by BUSINESS WEEK ("Plenty Of Oil -- Just Drill Deeper" by Mark Morrison, 18 September 2006), on 5 September 2006 Chevron, Devon Energy, and Statoil of Norway announced the discovery of a major new oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico that could expand known US reserves by up to 50%. The field was discovered through about a dozen test holes bored by Chevron's floating rig, which drilled down about 8 kilometers (5 miles) through water and earth to find the oil.

The floating rig was a "Cajun Express", one of thirteen built by Transocean INC since 1998. A Cajun Express has the ability drill down to 10,700 meters (35,000 feet), about twice the depth of earlier rigs. Deep drilling doesn't come cheap, particularly these days when equipment and expertise are in demand, but the general belief is that as long as oil stays above $40 USD a barrel, the drillers are still going to make profits.

The oil field is believed to cover an area of about 480 kilometers by 130 kilometers (300 x 80 miles) and is loaded with at least 3 billion barrels of light, sweet crude. Analysts believe deep drilling may uncover similar huge deposits, for example in the North Sea off of Britain, the Nile River delta off the coast of Egypt, coastal Brazil, and West Africa. Oil industry executives are feeling pleased with the Gulf discovery, finding it a useful corrective to the doomsday scenarios of peakists. One company official calls the peakist scenarios "garbage". It certainly does come as something of a strange non-sequitur that tripling the price of oil would triple the supply -- but the promise of more money seems to be accomplishing just such a magic trick.



* ANOTHER ROAD TRIP (2): I left Loveland, Colorado, on my Northwest road trip early on Tuesday, 5 September. I made good time to Thermopolis, Wyoming -- traffic was light on the back highways. The museum was modest, a prefab metal building housing what might have amounted to a single gallery at, say, the Smithsonian, but admission was cheap and the gallery was well put together, so the visit was worthwhile.

A busload of what looked like junior-high kids from the Wind River Reservation, home to the Arapaho and Shoshoni tribes, was visiting as well -- nothing different from a busload of Anglo kids except for ethnicity: cute girls, noisy boys, and the teacher shouting at them to keep them in line. Interestingly, they all spoke in English with each other, not one of the notoriously incomprehensible tribal tongues.

The route towards Yellowstone took me through the Shoshoni National Forest, with the route following a canyon lined by spectacular bluffs and rock formations, looking like something out of an epic fantasy -- land of Mordor or the like. There was a decrepit, apparently unfinished house or lodge on one of the bluffs to the south of the road that kept with the epic fantasy scheme, built as a tower of rough timbers.

Admission to Yellowstone turned out to be something of a surprise -- it cost $25 USD, even though I was just passing through. I'd been there before and didn't recall the fee, though I knew there were camping fees. It was something of a shrug after I got over the surprise, except for the fact that promptly after driving out of the toll booth I ran into ten miles of very bad road -- they were refurbishing the east entrance to the park. This is annoying.

Once I was past the road work into the main area of the park, I had no problems. There's a central road loop that circles the core of the park, and I had to choose between heading due south on the short route towards Teton National Park, or traversing the far side of the loop, which took me past the geyser system. My major objective was to get shots of the spectacular Teton mountains and that meant I had to get there before sundown, but I chanced the long route anyway.

Parts of the park burned up some years back and are still recovering, but it remains impressive, with big herds of buffalo -- bison to the purists, everyone else calls them buffalo -- on the hillsides. There would be little traffic jams when an animal presented a photo-opportunity; I managed to pick up shots of two cow elk in a stream and then a bull elk taking it easy in a meadow. Two buffalo also decided that they owned the road and caused a big traffic jam; it wasn't like anyone with any sense was going to try to get out and chase them off. One walked by so close that I could have reached out and touched him.

buffalo (bison)

I made fair time around the Yellowstone loop, getting some shots of the sulfurous pools around Old Faithful, and then headed south into Teton National Park. I was maybe in a bit too much of a hurry, trying to make sure I got there before darkness fell, but even with a stop to get shots of a moose mucking around in a marsh, I managed to snap the Tetons with the sun going down behind them. It was lucky, since the region was surprisingly hazy with smoke from wild fires some distance away, and rain was falling in spots. Since I wasn't planning on coming back through any time soon, I was glad not to lose the opportunity. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* INFRASTRUCTURE -- OIL & GAS (1): Chapter 4 of Brian Hayes' book INFRASTRUCTURE focuses on a particularly high-profile subject these days, oil and gas production.

The Hollywood stereotype of a "wildcat" oil drilling operation usually involves a derrick that suddenly blasts up a rumbling gusher of oil, with everyone running around shouting: "We're rich! We're rich!" Of course, as is usually the case with Hollywood, this image has little to do with reality. If there's a gusher, the likely thing that people would be saying as they were running around would be: "We're screwed! We're screwed!"

In the first place, the derrick only exists at the outset, since it's just there to drill the hole and is removed when the hole is completed. The drill consists of a drill head, known as a "bit" or "tool", that is bored down into the ground, spinning on the end of lengths of pipe mated together. The pipe comes in 9 meter (30 foot) sections called "joints", with a typical well using hundreds of joints to form up a "drill string". The pipe not only provides support for the bit, it also provides a conduit for supply of a lubricant, called "drilling mud", to the bit to keep it running smoothly, and to provide a flow path back up to the surface to carry away the cuttings. The mud also coats the hole to seal the well.

The drill is rotated by a "rotary table", which is a motor-driven heavy platter mounted on the main deck of the drill rig. It drives a special section of pipe called a "kelly", which has a square or hex cross section that fits into a hole in the middle of the rotary table. The kelly can slip down through the hole to keep up with the descent of the drill bit. The process is called "making hole".

The drill bit, however, is not pushed from the top. With such a long length of pipe, the pipe string would quickly buckle. Instead, the bit is mounted on a set of heavyweight pipes, called "drill collars", about ten times more massive than normal pipe, with the weight pushing the bit down and the pipe string passively following. The weight of the entire pipe string can come to about a hundred tonnes, with the assembly supported by a sturdy block and tackle hoist at the top of the derrick. A brake on the hoist adjusts tension every few moments, generating a loud screeching noise characteristic of drill rigs.

So what happens when the top end of the kelly drops down to the level of the rotary table? That's when things get laborious. The drilling is stopped and the hoist pulls the pipe string back up out of the hole until the bottom end of the kelly is clear. A clamping device called the "slips" is attached to the pipe string to hang on to it while the kelly is removed. A new joint is inserted in its place, with the joint connected to the pipe string through threaded couplings -- female on the top of the joint, male on the bottom, with the connection tightened by an oversized wrench mechanism known as "tongs". The pipe string is dropped back down the hole, the kelly is attached to the end of the new joint, and the rig goes back to making hole.

To get really laborious, every now and then a drill bit wears out or breaks, and has to be replaced. The entire pipe string has to be yanked, a process known as "tripping out", with the string uncoupled in lengths two to four joints and piled on a rack on the derrick. The bit is then replaced and the pipe string is inserted back down the hole, a process known, unsurprisingly, as "tripping in".

drilling rig

The drill rig has office space on the main deck, this structure being known as the "doghouse". It's where the rig controls are and provides a lunchroom for the crew. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GREEN CHINA: An article in THE ECONOMIST ("Visions Of Ecopolis", 23 September 2006) provided a detailed tour of one of China's latest efforts to bring the country up to the leading edge of the modern world: a new city designed from the ground up with the environment in mind.

The new city, Dongtan, is being built on Chongming, an island of silt in the estuary of the Yangzi River, with Shanghai, at 9.5 million people China's biggest city, on the south bank of the river. The plan is to open Dongtan to the first residents in 2010; the city will be self-sufficient in energy and water, and will use fuel-cell powered buses as well as other "green" transport systems.

Right now Chongming, which is about 80 kilometers long and 17 kilometers wide (50 by 11 miles) has a population of about 650,000, mostly farmers. Some of the farmland will be turned into forest, the rest being adapted to organic farming methods. Wetlands will be converted into parks, with wide buffers to prevent development from encroaching on them. Dongtan will be at the downstream end of the island; only about a fifth of the island will be urbanized. The island will operate as a pleasant resort for Shanghai residents.

Shanghai has been growing rapidly, with glittering skyscrapers often built by foreign firms. Government authorities have been becoming increasingly uneasy with the breakneck growth, and are enthusiastic about Dongtan as a way of assessing alternatives. Foreigners are helping with Dongtan, too, with Arup, a British construction firm, assisting in the program.

The Arup plan sees Dongtan growing in three phases, with phase 1 to be complete by 2010 and providing living space for 25,000 people. By 2040, the city will accommodate a half-million souls. It will be an ecotopian paradise, combining classic Chinese design with the latest technology. Energy will be provided by wind turbines and biofuels made from agricultural waste. Most of the city's trash will be recycled, and sewage will be processed to be fed back into the farm system. All farming will be organic, and "green building" technologies will cut the amount of energy used to heat and cool buildings by 70%.

Dongtan envisioned

Dongtan will be compact, making it easy to get around. Public transport will include solar-powered water taxis cruising the city's canals, and fuel-cell-powered buses. No internal combustion ground vehicles will be normally allowed in the city.

This sounds like a environmentalist's notion of a Disney theme park, and that's what it could end up being. Shanghai plans to host the World Expo in 2010 and wants Dongtan open by then to draw in tourists. The authorities still insist that they are serious, and point out that if Dongtan may not be an actual vision for a world that could exist in practice, it will provide an experimental laboratory for ideas that could catch on elsewhere. Even critics have to admit: it's worth a shot.



* AMAZON PRESSES ON: Amazon.com has long been the most prominent online retailer, but as discussed in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Click To Download", 19 August 2006), the company is now finding the going tougher.

Amazon was founded in 1995, beginning as a bookseller and then progressively diversifying into music CDs and video disks, consumer electronics, jewelry, clothing, and now even groceries -- generally in the form of bulk packages of nonperishable foods. Amazon has been aggressive in refining its services, offering free shipment for purchases of most goods above a certain dollar level for those who are in no hurry, and an "Amazon Prime" program for those in a rush that provides unlimited free next-day shipment for $79 USD a year.

Amazon's competitiveness means rolling profits back into the business, and the margins on sales -- over $10 billion USD expected for 2006 as a whole -- aren't that high. As a result, the company share price has been trailing the NASDAQ average. Amazon has little choice other than to fight, however. Other online operations, like eBay and Google, are moving in on Amazon's online retailing turf, while "brick & mortar" retailers like America's Walmart and the UK's Tesco are becoming "brick & click" outfits that provide both direct sales and online catalogs -- a strategy that has synergism in that a shopper can buy online and get an immediate pickup from a store.

Amazon's boss, Jeff Bezos, was not caught napping. In 2000, he opened Amazon to third-party sales, with the third parties benefiting from Amazon's name and systems -- buyers might hesitate in handing off a credit-card number to a small online operation, but few feel insecure about handing it to Amazon -- while paying a percentage of sales to their host. There was a belief that this would cannibalize Amazon sales, but Bezos realized that sales were going to be gradually eroded anyway, and that Amazon was smarter to go with the flow and get a cut from it. Contrast this to, say, the determined resistance of phone companies against voice IP, which will sooner or later destroy their profitable long-distance phone business.

Jeff Bezos

There was synergism in Amazon's move as well, in that third parties could sell items that Amazon would not find profitable to handle directly, such as hard-to-find used books. In 2005, 28% of sales off the Amazon.com website were from third parties. Along with third-party sales, Amazon has moved in on eBay territory by allowing users to resell used items on Amazon.com, with the company taking a cut once more -- and accepting that it cannibalizes sales of new items. It takes a certain amount of courage on Bezos' part to be willing to grasp such nettles. Amazon also leverages its online retailing expertise by running websites for other retailers, such as Target and Borders, though a similar arrangement with Toys "R" Us went south after Amazon started selling toys as well.

One emerging pressure against Amazon is downloads. Despite diversification in product offerings, two-thirds of company revenue is provided by books, CDs, and DVDs. Downloads are a threat to that business -- if only in potential for the moment. Downloads of music are popular, but not always that convenient, and three-quarters of internet users are still hooked on buying CDs -- it's nice to have a "permanent" copy of the music even if it's ripped and put on an MP3 player. Video downloading is still a fringe operation since it places so much demand on bandwidth, and so far downloadable books for "e-readers" have been a joke.

It would be complacent to think that matters won't change, however. MP3 players are becoming more and more popular, Internet bandwidth is increasing steadily, and manufacturers are coming up with improved e-readers. Amazon is actually well-placed to take on the download market, and in fact is already providing download services to an extent -- though mostly for promotional purposes.

The company already handles books in digital form, though customers end up buying hard copies as if they were pulled off a bookshelf; with modern printing technology, it's possible to economically print one book at a time as long as it's available in a digital form. Such "printing on demand" technology provides an open-ended inventory of books, with no book in the collection ever going out of print. Amazon is now trying, through the company's new BookSurge subsidiary, to persuade publishers to have their books digitized.

How fast the download market emerges, and how well Amazon deals with the changes, remains to be seen. However, given how aggressively the company has dealt with other changes in the past, it's a fair bet that Amazon may end up leader of the pack. As Jeff Bezos likes to say: "It's all about the long term."



* ALTERNATIVE COMPUTING FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD: Much fuss has been made about the project to build a "hundred dollar laptop" for the developing world -- last discussed here a month back -- but according to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Splitting The Digital Difference", 23 September 2006), it's not the only game in town for developing-world tech.

Quentin Stafford-Fraser, a researcher at Cambridge University in the UK and formerly of AT&T, believes that the route to cheap computing for the masses in the undeveloped world lies in multi-user processing. Once upon a time, before the age of PCs, computer users shared a mainframe through dumb terminals. A modern PC is at least as powerful as some of these old mainframes, and in fact PC operating systems like Linux can support multi-user operation. The Cambridge group has developed an interface box named "Ndiya", Swahili for "Yes", that allows five to ten sets of keyboards, mice, and displays to be hooked up to one PC. The scheme is already in use in internet cafes in Bangladesh and South Africa, with access to the internet over mobile phones.

Researchers at software giant Microsoft, on their part, think that innovative financing may be a key to helping sell PCs to the undeveloped world. Taking a cue from the way people in poor countries support their mobile-phone habit by buying prepaid phone cards, Microsoft is pushing a scheme named "FlexGo" in which a PC buyer pays an initial installment up-front to obtain the machine, and then buys cards to allow its use for a certain limited time, with the machine disabling itself when the card runs out. Eventually, the user will pay off the machine, and then it will work full time; a user could broker time on the machine to others to help pay it off, in much the same way that mobile phones are rented out for small sums in undeveloped countries.

Microsoft actually thinks mobile phones are a better model for computing in undeveloped countries than the hundred dollar laptop. The company has now developed a system in which a mobile phone can be plugged into a keyboard and a TV to create a network-enabled micro-PC. Microsoft is also considering the software element, creating a cheap, streamlined operating system named "XP Starter Edition". The idea is to cut the cost so low that piracy becomes uneconomical, and to challenge the efforts of open-source advocates to push Linux as the default operating system for the developing world.

Of course, PCs are not trivial to use, which means training is required. Cisco, the well-known maker of internet servers, supports free "networking academies" run by local techies in 63 developing nations. There's also the issue of software. Mark Shuttleworth, a South African software entrepreneur who took a ride to the International Space Station in 2002, is tackling the job of distributing applications software to poor countries. His "Shuttleworth Foundation" has come up with the "Freedom Toaster", which is a kiosk where people can obtain open-source software and burn them onto free CDs. There are now about 30 such kiosks in South Africa.

The question remains of whether any of these schemes will prove workable. PCs for the masses may be an illusion, but those backing the schemes can draw some confidence from the way mobile phones have caught on in the developing world. Not all these ideas are going to work, but if enough ideas are generated, a few may well be winners.



* ANOTHER ROAD TRIP (1): I took my biannual road trip to Spokane to visit family in September, and took a few doglegs to shoot pictures.

I had something of a frantic time getting ready, since at the end of the month I'm always piled up, getting things done and out the door. On Saturday, 2 September, I also had to take a trip down to Colorado Springs to get pix of a balloon festival, which helped cramp me for time further. It turned out to be something of a lost cause. The weather reports said Saturday was going to be warm and sunny; it was cloudy at daybreak in Loveland, but I figured it would clear off as it usually does. However, when I got to Colorado Springs it was low overcast and drizzly, not the kind of weather any sensible person would want to fly a hot-air balloon in.

Oh well, that was unusual weather for these parts this time of year, try again next year. I did make up for it a bit by visiting the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo -- not the biggest zoo, but well laid out, with a giraffe exhibit featuring an elevated walkway that puts visitors at head level with the giraffes. The zoo sells a coarse cracker the zoo dietitians brewed up to feed them, and the giraffes were definitely interested in visitors. They are obviously gentle creatures.

giraffes & friends

They also had a new kangaroo enclosure, with the bigger roos penned up -- for the sensible reason that a big roo could tear a person's guts out with a well-placed kick -- but the little wallabies bouncing around underfoot. I could stroke their fur, it was very soft, but they seemed to more tolerate than like it. There were a few female wallabies with little "joeys" stowed away in their pouches, something I'd never seen before except in pictures; I found it strange.

I did a dogleg into the Air Force Academy on the way back north to get a shot of the famous chapel there; last time I dropped in I didn't have my wide-angle camera and couldn't fit the structure into the field of view. From the inside, the chapel ceiling is spectacular, featuring a crisscross pattern of stained glass. I managed to get a nice shot of the pattern by arming my wide-angle camera to three-second shutter delay and setting it on the floor, staring straight up, aligned with the floor tile edges to get a straight shot. It's nice to get one of these off-the-wall ideas and have it work every now and then.

Air Force Academy chapel ceiling

On the way back home I visited the Denver Aquarium, which is a nice facility but really too kiddie-oriented. It did have an interesting exhibit consisting of a pool of rays that the kids could reach out and play with.

* All that done, I returned home to get ready for the Spokane trip. I was going to take a side trip through central Wyoming, visit the dinosaur fossil museum in Thermopolis, loop though Yellowstone and Grand Teton, spend the night in Idaho Falls, visit the zoo there in the morning, and get to Spokane by way of Butte, Montana. On the way back, the agenda was to check out the zoo in Billings, Montana, then loop to eastern Wyoming to shoot Devil's Tower and into the Black Hills in South Dakota to shoot Mount Rushmore.

I was thinking of leaving on Monday, but that turned out to be too little time on thinking about it; I wanted to make sure I had all my errands and paperwork done before I left so I didn't have to face them and an accumulation of other things when I came back. It was hectic to go through the days working through a checklist: "get up / do this / do this / do this / go to bed". I also realized that it wasn't a good idea to try traveling on two-lane highways on the Labor Day holiday -- I'd be trapped behind mobile homes all the way. Driving through Yellowstone on Labor Day was just out of the question. I decided to leave on Tuesday instead. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* INFRASTRUCTURE -- FOOD & FARMING (9): Crops need more than water and sunlight to grow; they also need nutrients and protection from pests. Enter agricultural chemicals: fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

The manure of farm animals was the only real fertilizer for a long time, and manure still persists as fertilizer for home gardeners. The problem with manure is that it's not all that convenient a fertilizer for large-scale agriculture. The first source of fertilizer that was suitable for large-scale exploitation was bird guano, built up in hills on certain islands off the coast of Peru. The exploitation of the guano islands began in the 1840s, with the islands proving so valuable that people actually fought over them.

Obviously even hills of guano represented a depletable resource. The discovery that the primary ingredient of guano that made it effective as fertilizer was nitrogen ultimately led to the development of the "Haber process", invented early in the 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Haber also, less creditably, effectively invented poison gases for use in warfare; he got the Nobel prize for the Haber process after World War I, his work on poison gases being discreetly overlooked.

The Haber process could extract nitrogen from the air, producing it for use as fertilizer in the form of ammonia, NH3. Ammonia might seem like a dubious fertilizer since it's poisonous to inhale, but pure or "anhydrous" ammonia is the standard farm fertilizer these days. A tractor pulls a trailer carrying an anhydrous ammonia tank and featuring a plow-like structure that injects gaseous ammonia under the surface of the soil. The ammonia is applied after harvesting or before planting; bacteria then convert it to other nitrogenous compounds, such as nitrates, that can be used by the crop plants.

The other main crop fertilizer is ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate can also be mixed with diesel fuel to form an explosive, "ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO)", mentioned in an earlier installment in this series, which is the cheapest and most common commercial explosive. It is also occasionally used by terrorists from bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, though the ammonium nitrate in fertilizer is not as pure as that used to produce commercial ANFO explosive, making the synthesis of explosive trickier.

Phosphorus is another important component in fertilizers. Phosphates have traditionally been obtained from phosphate rocks, but unlike nitrogen fertilizer, whose supply is in principle unlimited -- since ammonia can be synthesized from the air by the Haber process -- phosphorus supplies are finite and could start running low in a few decades. There has been interest in refining phosphates out of human sewage and, more significant in its magnitude, manure from animal husbandry.

* Pesticides are a relatively modern invention, having been introduced in the 19th century. One of the early insecticides was "pyrethrum", derived from chrysanthemums; it persists today, probably because few could think that a poison derived from flowers could be all that dangerous. However, some of the early pesticides, including lead or arsenic compounds and forms of cyanide, are now banned.

The most famous, or notorious, pesticide was the insecticide DDT, developed in World War II. It was originally used to suppress mosquitoes and other disease vectors, but was later used on cotton crops, until the Rachel Carson published her pioneering environmental muckraking book SILENT SPRING, which claimed that DDT accumulation was killing off bird populations. DDT was banned in the US a decade later. The actual guilt of DDT now seems more ambiguous, but Carson did raise a useful awareness that pesticides may have unintended environmental consequences.

Insecticides are still used, but farmers try to be selective in their use, only resorting to them when the target insects show up. Insect traps are often set up along the edges of the fields, with the traps checked periodically to see if there is an infestation that needs to be dealt with. Insecticides are applied with a sprayer towed behind a tractor, or by helicopter or crop-duster aircraft. Crop-duster aircraft generally have a cockpit perched high to give the pilot a good view of the field, and rugged landing gear to tolerate the occasion bounce off the dirt. Incidentally, in Japan, where farm plots tend to be small, crop-dusting is sometimes performed by what amount to oversized radio-control model helicopters.

crop duster

Spraying herbicides -- plant-killing chemicals -- on a field full of crop plants seems a bit mad at first sight, but it is possible in many cases to develop pesticides that kill the weeds and leave the crop plants alone. Grains such as wheat and corn are "monocotyledon" grasses, while most weeds are "dicotyledon" broadleaf plants, making them so different that it's not too hard to develop selective toxins. One of the first broadleaf herbicides was known as "2,4-D" and was developed in the 1940s. The controversial Agent Orange, used in Vietnam to defoliate forests and accused of causing cancers in the people who were exposed to it, included 2,4-D. (The motto of the spraying squadron was: "Only We Can Prevent Forests.")

Of course, when the crop is a broadleaf, like soybeans or cotton, applying herbicides is trickier. One trick is to apply a "pre-emergence" herbicide right after planting, with the herbicide killing off the fast-growing weeds and degrading harmlessly before the crop plants sprout.

Genetic modification has also been used in the battle. The chemical giant Monsanto makes the Roundup herbicide, well-known to homeowners, which is a plant growth hormone that makes its victims grow out of control until they die. Roundup isn't very selective, but Monsanto has created "Roundup-ready" crop plants that can tolerate it while the weeds die off. There has also been work on modifying crop plants, particularly corn, to synthesize an insect toxin named "Bt" used by some bacteria, but this scheme remains controversial, as does most genetic modification.

* As a footnote to modern farming technology, there is a faction promoting a concept known as "no-till" farming, in which the soil is no longer turned with the plow for planting. Advocates of no-till say that plowing has a tendency to enhance erosion and can destroy the soil. In no-till farming, stubble and plant waste left over from harvest is retained as ground cover and mulch, with seeds planted directly in the ground using a seeding system.

Advocates claim that not only does no-till preserve soil, it results in fewer "passes" by farm machinery over the fields, which reduces time and energy requirements. Advocates admit that the seeding gear is expensive at the present time; that more herbicides are required to suppress weeds; and in particular that the transition to no-till is not only tricky but can result in reduced crop yields. At present, only a relatively small percentage of croplands are farmed using no-till procedures.

Crops are also increasingly raised in greenhouse environments, the most traditional scheme being "hydroponics", in which crops are grown without soil in troughs through which nutrient-laden water flows. Indoor farming can also be performed using trickle irrigation in troughs, or using "aeroponics" -- a scheme developed for space habitats in which plants are grown with their roots exposed to the open air, in a humid nutrient-laden atmosphere.

There's nothing all that new about indoor farming; hydroponics was used during World War II to grow fresh vegetables for Allied troops on South Pacific islands that lacked adequate soil. Indoor farming is also a fairly big business these days, the most spectacular example in the USA these days being the Eurofresh Farm in Arizona, which has greenhouse space covering 1.3 square kilometers (a half a square mile). Advocates of indoor farming promote its efficient use of water and fertilizer, as well as its freedom from pesticides and herbicides, not to mention its relative independence from droughts, frosts, and other weather hazards. Some enthusiasts believe that indoor farming is the way of the future, though critics point out that it is capital-intensive and can be energy intensive. [END OF SET 3]



* BUILDING BOOM: As Dickens said about Paris in the Revolution, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Building A New Rome", 26 August 2006), the city of Moscow demonstrates this adage at a glance, with a forest of construction cranes springing up to raise a messy complex of new buildings at a frantic pace. The phenomenon gives interesting insights in how things are done in the new Russia.

old & new on the Moscow skyline

There's construction going on in all of Russia's major western cities, but the wheels are turning most rapidly in Moscow. Housing prices are skyrocketing, having doubled in the last year alone, with rents the highest in Europe. Muscovites are obsessed with the market. Most pay cash: mortgages are still a new concept.

The crunch between supply and demand is aggravated by the fact that though there are plenty of existing buildings in Moscow, nobody with money wants most of them. Classic structures from Tsarist days are a prize, being bought up and refurbished, but dingy Soviet-era buildings are worth less than the ground they stand on, fit only for demolition to allow modern buildings to be raised in their place.

Not too surprisingly, the building boom involves a degree of corruption. A newspaper investigation concluded that 10% of the cost of a new apartment went to bribes. Says a contractor: "That's too low." Permits have to be issued, inspections have to be performed, and magnitude of construction activity gives a lot of opportunity and temptation for graft.

The police are getting their cut as well. Much of the construction labor is provided by poor foreigners, with the Tadjiks regarded very highly for their hard work and willingness to accept low pay. The foreigners are at the mercy of the authorities; the police exploit the situation, as do employers, and sometimes the two collaborate to squeeze the workers. It should not be thought, however, that poor Russians fare much better. Property and citizen's rights are weak and ambiguous; those whose tattered old residences are in the way of progress may end up simply being evicted, with little hope of help from the courts. When people try to resist, the police throw them out forcibly, sometimes beating them up to demonstrate their annoyance at such defiance.

Moscow is being turned into a spectacular lit-up modern city of glass and steel, but critics regard the rampant growth as unmanaged, crass, and ugly. One says that Russia's new social elite is "as uncultured as the Bolsheviks." After generations of threadbare Soviet society, however, the prosperous class of the new Russia finds the glittery lure of a modern apartment and all its conveniences irresistible.

* POPULATION IMPLOSION: Unfortunately, the glittery new skyline of big Russian cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg is somewhat misleading, since poverty is more the rule in the rest of the country. This was emphasized by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("A Sickness Of The Soul", 9 September 2006), which pointed out that the population of Russia has declined by 6 million since the fall of the Soviet Union, to 143 million. To put that in perspective, that's less than half the population of the USA in a country about 1.75 times bigger in terms of land area.

Although widespread poverty is partly to blame for a low birth rate, Westernization and the associated inclination towards small families also contributes. However, the low birth rate is not so much the root cause of the shrinking population, the actual rate not being so different from that of Western Europe, as is a wretchedly high death rate. General life expectancy for a Russian male is 59, and in some locales it's pushing down closer towards 50. 40 years ago, a Russian male could look forward to an average lifespan of about 64 years.

Russian heart-disease rates are among the highest in the world. The suicide rate is five times that of the UK, and the number of traffic fatalities is four times greater. Murder is 20 times more common than in Western Europe. However, Russian women have an average life expectancy of 72 -- which leads to the question of what critical variables make the male life expectancies so low.

There is little argument over the main cause: alcohol, which is linked to heart disease, traffic accidents, and acts of violence. Some estimates place the number of alcoholics among adult Russians at one in six. In some villages, children become alcoholics before they reach puberty. Women are less prone to becoming alcoholics and so they do not suffer from these afflictions at the same level. Compounding the problem is that much of the stuff that Russians drink, the bootleg brews they call "samogon", are pretty nasty: in 2005, 36,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning, compared to a few hundred in the more populous USA. A particular recent problem was samogon made with a medical disinfectant that destroyed the livers of its victims, resulting in what has been called the "yellow death".

There are other factors as well. Russians tend to be heavy smokers; the country has serious environmental problems, including radioactive contamination; and the public health system is decrepit and corrupt. There is also a general problem of sheer hopelessness. The alcoholism and destructiveness are partly a symptom of a system where people feel trapped.

As bad as things are, they are likely to get worse soon. The issue is AIDS. It's taken time for it to catch on in Russia, but it is starting to spread, with the estimates of the number of Russians infected running to a million. Death rates are hard to estimate, partly because they are masked by Russia's shocking levels of tuberculosis deaths. Although the government should have been able to take advantage of the delay in the arrival of the disease to prepare, officials were complacent; even now the government's HIV-AIDS budget is tiny. Citizens are often just as complacent: anti-AIDS activists find that trying to encourage young folk to use condoms is like talking to a brick wall.

The workforce is shrinking and the military is straining to find healthy recruits. Russians have not been particularly welcoming to immigrants even though they are needed to keep things going, with incidents of violence against foreigners on the rise. In the Russian Far East, ethnic Russians are concerned that they will be gradually displaced by Chinese moving across the border. That is an old and probably exaggerated worry. However, the current downward trajectory of Russian society does give a long list of perfectly realistic things to worry about.



* PALM OIL RUSH: As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Fuels Rush In", 26 August 2006), the current frenzy over alternative fuels is now pulling in Malaysia and Indonesia. The oil-palm tree, Elais guineensis, is a popular cash crop in the region, with the oil used in everything from cookies to shampoo. Global demand is high and oil palm production has been up and to the right, with oil-palm plantations expanding at the expense of cocoa and rubber plantations.

With high fuel costs, palm oil is also seen as an excellent feedstock for biodiesel. The government of Indonesia is providing financial assistance to increase the production of palm oil, and the government of Malaysia has approved 52 new biodiesel plants. Malaysia will soon start selling diesel with 5% biodiesel content, with the content expected to increase to 20%. Japan and the European Union are now placing orders for Malaysian biodiesel. Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines are also planning big biofuels plantations, and Singapore, though lacking the land needed to raise palm-oil trees, is building extensive production facilities.

Such biofuel investments appear likely to be highly profitable unless oil falls below $50 USD per barrel, which nobody expects to happen any time soon. Development of the industry also creates jobs. The only flaws in the vision are the debatable efficiencies of biofuels; the fact that palm-oil trees take several years to mature, meaning long production lead times and possibilities for being caught economically high and dry; and the squeeze the demand for biofuels will put on palm oil production, increasing prices and making life more difficult for the poor who rely on palm oil as a kitchen staple. Still, as long as petroleum remains costly, the drive towards biofuels production is likely to continue.

* OIL DEFLATION: The cost of oil has actually been going down for the time being. One of the unexpected things over this last summer was the rapid fall in oil prices at the pump. According to BUSINESS WEEK ("How Low Can It Go?" by Stanley Reed & Peter Coy, 25 September 2006), on 14 July 2006, oil was $79.32 USD a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange; on 13 September it was $63.97. Oil prices had been stuck at a high level in the US since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in the fall of 2005, and the drop in prices has been a pleasant surprise for consumers.

Oil inventories, production levels, and investment in new production infrastructure are high. Some forecasts predict, at the low end of the range of estimates, oil at $50 USD a barrel in 2008, and a few even see it going down to $25 USD -- though only under the condition of a massive global economic crash. On the other hand, estimates assuming the emergence of various international crises lurking in the wings see the price as zooming to more than $100 USD. Most "middle of the road" estimates more reassuringly see it as remaining in the $60 USD range.

The range of estimates suggests the old saying that predictions are difficult, particularly when they're about the future. The price of oil is based on a bewildering number of factors, including revolutions and wars, disastrous storms, OPEC policies, and so on. OPEC, for example, is likely to cut production and investment in facilities if prices fall below $60 USD a barrel. The Saudis are already implementing measures that amount to subtle production cuts.

In a sense, too much of a drop in oil prices would not be all that welcome. The drop in oil prices that ended the energy crisis of the 1970s did much to slow down the search for alternatives and accelerate dependence on foreign oil. It is nice to pay less at the pump, but it's obvious that we won't be able to live in a fool's paradise of low fuel prices for any real length of time.



* TEHRAN RIDING HIGH: In 2002, US President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he labeled Iran as part of an "international axis of evil", and so the seeming ease in which the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in the next year made the Shiite mullahs who run Iran feel nervous indeed. As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("The Extraordinary Revival Of The Islamic Republic", 26 August 2006), going on three years after the invasion of Iraq, Tehran is feeling cocky instead. The Americans ended up becoming bogged down in Iraq -- so much so that there is no prospect of any other major military interventions by the USA for the time being -- while overthrowing the repressive system that kept Iran's brother Shiites in Iraq down. Instead of a threat, the Iranians ended up with a deal better than they could have wished for.

Things seem to be going well along other fronts. A new hardline government under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005; this was not good news for Iranian reformists, who are now keeping a low profile and under pressure from the authorities, but it did end internal controversy, at least for the moment. Oil prices are high, ensuring that Tehran's supply of funds is generous. Finally, this last summer the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, Iran's ally and client in the region, stood up to a furious Israeli onslaught and came out standing tall.

All this has made the Iranians feel pretty good about things. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, which features threats against the Israelis and Holocaust denial, comes across in the West as like the rantings of a crank on an internet forum, but it goes over well at home, not to mention across the Mideast. Bashing the Israelis, as well as the Americans, is an easy sell to the public, not merely in Shiite lands but in Sunni Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose rulers distrust Shiite assertiveness but whose citizens admire resistance to the Zionists and the Americans.

Given such confidence, the Iranians have felt little hesitation in blowing off international attempts to restrain the country's nuclear program. Sanctions are looming, but with Russia and China taking a soft line towards the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran is unworried about the matter.

An analysis suggests that the winds might shift quickly. The summer war in southern Lebanon ended up with Hezbollah claiming a win because they did not lose, and the Israelis bemoaning a loss because they did not win. Hezbollah did clearly achieve a moral victory, but it was just as clearly an expensive one, since Lebanon was devastated -- while the Israelis were, in comparison, little more than inconvenienced.

The same contrast between attitude and reality applies to Iran: while Iran is strutting on the regional stage, the government remains inefficient and heavy-handed, with no hint of needed reforms in the works and the country full of non-Persian ethnic minorities who don't have any reason to like the current regime. Although many Sunni Muslims are tolerant of Shiite Islam, the two branches of the religion have a very long-standing inclination to feud lurking just below the surface; Shiite assertiveness is very likely to create a Sunni backlash sooner or later, and since only about 15% of Muslims are Shiite, the Sunnis will have the advantage in numbers.

Oil prices are falling -- not so incidentally, Iran pumps less oil now than it did in the days of the Shah; the Americans certainly will, one way or another, get themselves out of the Iraq trap; and US President George W. Bush will leave office in 2008, with the following administration, whether Democrat or Republican, very likely to learn from the difficulties of the current one and be less of a magnet for hostility. In new circumstances, Tehran might end up feeling not quite so cocky any more.



* ANOTHER MONTH: Some months ago I had someone complain about the appearance of my website, that he didn't care for the Times Roman font, and the black text on the white background. I told him that was just the browser default, that he could set the font and colors to whatever he liked, and that I saw no reason to impose my ideas of style on readers when they could configure the pages as they pleased. I had some doubts in the back of my mind about saying that, however. When I was in customer service for the Corporation, sometimes I'd get customer complaints about what we were doing in our products, I'd give them a glib and complacent answer, and a year or so later I'd realize that I was wrong all along. "Duh."

While on the road recently, I'd get into PCs at hotels, and when I checked on my website from these PCs, it came up with Times Roman font, black text on white background. All I could think was: "That really looks ugly." How many people even know how to change the defaults? Maybe I should tinker with the fonts and colors a bit.

When I got home I double-checked the colors and fonts statements in an HTML reference. Changing fonts, on inspection, turned out to lead to more trouble than it was worth, but I thought it might make sense to at least get rid of the white background. I set up a statement to provide a light gray background color, reformatted the web pages, and uploaded them.

I very quickly got a (polite and measured) complaint from a reader that this rendered his links invisible, and suggested that if I wanted to tinker with colors, I would have to specify all the text colors as well.

That's when the light bulb went on in my head (again) and I realized I was doing something half-baked. If I wanted to tinker with page fonts and colors, I'd be in the position of dictating to readers what the page appearance was, instead of letting the readers work it out to their own satisfaction. That was out of the question. When strangers tell me that they know what's better for myself than I do, I hang up on them. I changed the pages back and uploaded them again.

A waste of time? Not at all. It went a long way to resolving my uncertainty about the page formatting, giving me assurance that I'd been on the right track, that I couldn't put myself into the position of dictating page format to readers. The unavoidable price to be paid is being stuck with the ugly default when readers don't want to or know how to set up their browser for fonts and colors. However, this being easy to do, I would suspect these are naive readers who probably aren't discriminating in the first place, and at least the default is, warts and all, workable.

* One mildly interesting innovation that popped up in the last month was the release for syndicated broadcasting of an updated version of the original 1960s STAR TREK series. The idea behind the update was to take exterior and matted shots from the original series and replace them with computer-generated effects. The soundtracks were also remastered.

This piqued my curiosity enough to give it a shot. I found that the updated episode I watched followed the original in all details, with no attempt to add minor new touches or flash, making it more of a cleanup job than a makeover -- no more wires! It was mildly interesting, though after forty years the story seemed almost as hokey as the Flash Gordon serials of the 1940s. I must admit that the young William Shatner cut a striking figure, and the femmes in their miniskirts, boots, and elaborate hairdos were definitely retro attention-getters.


I doubt that I'll pick up more of the updated Trek episodes off broadcast. I was never a big Trek fan, not thinking much of the original Trek series even when I saw it back in the Sixties, and though I plugged away at the revival series, it was with low expectations and declining enthusiasm. I was thinking of the memorable TV sci-fi and fantasy video series I've seen and realized that I'd never put any of the Trek series on the top ten list. THE TWILIGHT ZONE has aged much better.

Still, I have to admire the people behind the updated original series. It was a clever idea. Given that TV video is low resolution and that the sequences they were duplicating were fairly straightforward, it was likely much cheaper to digitally recreate the shots than it had been to make them originally. I would bet it will turn out to be a profitable exercise in squeezing a little more mileage out of the series in syndication.

On that note, I also checked out some of the TREK videos fans have been putting together. I was impressed by the production values, though the acting was strictly amateur theater. When Shatner was asked if he'd get involved with the fan videos, he replied: "Not a chance." Shatner has a reputation for arrogance, but in this case it's hard to fault him.

* On the RE-CALL 911 article about 911 conspiracy theories run here last month: further poking around reveals a poll of Canadians that shows 22% believe there was a conspiracy, which is not too surprising given that the current US regime is not popular north of the border, but also reassuringly shows that the US has no corner on the market for conspiracy-theory geeks.

There are a number of debunking sites around on the Web; the Wikipedia has a long article, and Mark Robert's 9-11 LOOSE CHANGE VIEWER GUIDE goes through the LOOSE CHANGE movie, analytically examining every comment in the flic. The VIEWER GUIDE doesn't just demolish LOOSE CHANGE, it flattens it into the road with a main battle tank and then runs back over it again. One comment that stood out was the film's citation of a statement by Osama bin Laden denying involvement with the 911 plot as a "proof" of the "conspiracy". The VIEWER GUIDE replied to the effect: We're supposed to assume that all our politicians are lying but that Osama bin Laden was telling the truth?

The debunking sites do make for tiresome reading, however, being massive overkill for people like me who find the conspiracy theories ridiculous from the first. I'm surprised that so many people seem to take them seriously. I've met my share of lunatic-fringers, but in my personal experience they're not that common. I suspect that most of the respondents to the poll were basically saying: "I haven't given it much thought, but there might have been a conspiracy for all I know or care, and I might as well be open-minded about the matter." The number of people who are earnest is much smaller -- or so I'd sleep better for believing.