* Entries include: railroad infrastructure, California road trip, resurgence of dengue fever, wind power in India, medical potential of symbiotic bacteria, personal rapid transport, contention over the North Pole's resources, Virgin Airways review, animal microtags, KGB in charge of Russia, cowbird protection racket, name-analysis software for security, tracing city population shifts through cellphones, fuzzy memories, and Canon Powershot camera.
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (6): The actual signal systems used in railroad traffic control are diverse and confusing, not anywhere near as standardized as automobile traffic signals. One of the earliest signals used in the US was to raise a white ball on a mast to show the track was clear, which led to the phrase "giving the train the highball". Some of these signals lingered on up to the 1950s. This scheme was followed by the moveable semaphore arm, which could be pivoted to horizontal to indicate "stop", to a 45-degree angle to indicate "proceed with caution", and to the vertical to indicate "go". The semaphore arm was derived from the "optical telegraph" semaphore systems implemented a generation before the electric telegraph. It is also now obsolete.
The railroads then went to electric lamp signals, originally with RED for "stop", GREEN for "caution", and a clear lamp for "go". There were concerns over what might happen if one of other lamps lost its color filter, giving a false "go" signal, and so in 1899 the New Haven Railroad introduced the RED-YELLOW-GREEN signal that was later adopted for automotive traffic. However, the signals have slightly different meaning for the railroads -- in particular, they apply to an entire block, not just an intersection, or in other words YELLOW means "proceed with caution through the block". A RED is a "stop", but it's more like a traffic stop sign -- it means "stop and then proceed". What gets really confusing to non-railroaders is that there may be multiple signals -- RED and GREEN lights might be shining at the same time, to indicate "proceed and then stop at the next signal".
The Pennsylvania Railroad had an alternate scheme for traffic lighting, with the lights in an array duplicating the old semaphore arm -- a row of horizontal lights meaning "stop", a diagonal row meaning "proceed with caution", and a vertical row meaning "stop". All the lights were amber. The Baltimore & Ohio used a hybrid system, with horizontal, diagonal, and vertical arrays of RED, YELLOW, and GREEN lights. Many modern trains no longer need any sort of external signal, since the locomotives have a signal box in the cab.
The rules of traffic on the railroads are unsurprisingly stricter than they are on the highways. A freight train may enter a block occupied by another freight train as long as they both proceed slowly, but a passenger train is never supposed to enter an occupied block. Some signals on commuter lines have an automatic "trip-stop" mechanism: when the signal goes red, a lever is raised on the track to engage a switch on the train that will apply the brakes.
Railroads are now heavily dependent on radio technology. In the days of telegraphy, messages were sent to signal stations, with the staff writing up a note to be snatched from a hook by a passing train. Later, telephones were installed at intervals along the track. Nowdays, the train crew keeps in touch with dispatcher over radio and uses handheld radios to chat among themselves.
Networked communications and control are catching up with the railroads as well, in the form of "positive train control (PTC)". In PTC, the train carries a black box that can relay back status over wireless and obtain updates on traffic and track status, with an augmented satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver giving the precise position of the train. PTC can even stop a train whose crew has been incapacitated or, for that matter, not there: in 2001, an engineer accidentally engaged the throttle of his locomotive as he was getting off, and the machine chugged across country for two hours with tanker cars full of chemicals in tow until an employee who had jumped on board managed to shut it down. PTC is strictly a pilot system at the present time. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Much has been made of the popular online "virtual worlds", such as massive multiplayer online (MMO) games such as "Worlds Of Warcraft" or the "Second Life" system. Such systems suggest that virtual world technology is likely to become commonplace on the rest of the internet, but so far virtual world systems have been ghettos for their fans.
The problem is that each virtual world uses its own technology -- a proprietary interface system on the user end, linked to the servers in which the virtual world resides, run with proprietary protocols. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Online Gaming's Netscape Moment?", 7 June 2007), standards are now emerging. Multiverse Networks, a startup created by four Netscape alumni, has now developed MMO client and server software based on open standards, designed to permit users to jump from one MMO system built around the software to another -- in effect, surfing the web via an avatar. The software is available for free; anyone who wants it can download it.
Conversion from existing virtual world systems will be difficult, but anyone wanting to get into the game will find the Multiverse software extremely attractive, since it greatly reduces the cost of MMO development. Opening up the MMO world by permitting interoperability is also expected to encourage participation by online advertising organizations such as Google.
* Anyone who's tried to take decent digital shots in marginal light conditions ends up wishing that digital cameras had a more sensitive imaging system. Kodak has now announced a new imaging chip that the company claims will do the job.
A typical digital camera has a imager screened by a "Bayer filter", which is just a screen with repeating red-green-blue windows. Camera smarts know which pixels correspond to which color and build up the color image appropriately. The Kodak "high sensitivity pattern" imager is a simple modification, with the filter modified to include a fourth "clear" window that picks up light intensity without regard for color.
This is how human vision actually works, incidentally: we have a matrix of sensitive monochrome vision "rods" to pick up the "luminance" of a scene, in which are interspersed a substantially smaller number of "cones" in red, green, and blue to paint "chrominance" over the image. Our high-resolution rods pick up the luminance signal and our low-resolution cones pick up the chrominance signal.
* I'll trace back hits on my website a few times a day, one of the reasons being that I will find interesting or at least amusing websites on the other end. A recent such search sent me to the "TinWiki" at "www.tinwiki.org", which is a Wikipedia for the lunatic fringe or "tinfoil hat wearers". It's mildly amusing, mostly focused on stuff that wouldn't fly even in the Wikipedia -- which is really saying something.
I try not to bash Wikipedia too much, however, since I rely on it heavily. Although it's not really a great source for highly reliable or clear information, it is useful for picky details -- birth and death dates of scientists for example -- and it is particularly useful for the fact that if there is any controversy in a subject, it's going to be discussed there. It's very useful in writing up a subject to get a warning that there's a booby trap present.BACK_TO_TOP
* DENGUE RESURGENT: One of the suspected marks of climate change is the resurgence of diseases once seen as in decline, and as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("A Deadly Scourge", 21 April 2007), dengue fever is a prime example. Dengue has been formally known since the late 18th century and it seemed to be on the fade during the 20th century, but now it is roaring back.
Dengue symptoms start out like those of the flu, but then the fever rises and the patient suffers from headaches, agonizing joint pains, nausea, and rashes. There are four strains of the virus that causes the disease, the worst causing "dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF)" that causes internal and external bleeding, sometimes leading to death. There is no vaccine and no treatment, other than rest and lots of fluids. A victim of one strain will acquire immunity to that strain, but not the others, and with a second infection the likelihood of acquiring the DHF syndrome rises.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that dengue is common in about 100 tropical countries around the world, with about 50 million people falling ill from the disease each year. With treatment, the fatality rate is about 2.5%; without treatment, it can be as high as 20%.
The disease is transmitted by the female Aedes mosquito, whose range has been increasing as the climate warms. Mexico identified 27,000 cases of dengue in 2006, up four times from 2001; due to the increasing number of repeat infections, the number of cases of DHF has increased there from 1 in 50 to 1 in 5. El Salvador, with only about 6% of the population of Mexico, had 22,000 cases of dengue in 2006, while the disease is running wild in Brazil and particularly Paraguay. Uruguay had its first case in 90 years.
The only defense is to suppress the Aedes mosquito, with Mexico conducting a public education effort to make sure citizens know better than to leave puddles of standing water near their houses where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs. The effort has shown some results, but the rainy season, when the mosquitoes reproduce most enthusiastically, hasn't arrived yet.BACK_TO_TOP
* WIND POWER FOR INDIA: Emerging countries such as India are often hobbled by limited infrastructure, for example power generating capacity. One response, as reported in an article from BBC.com ("India Taps Into Wind Power" by Monica Chadha) has been to turn to renewable energy sources.
The industrial area of Bhiwandi, about an hour's drive from Mumbai, faces persistent power cuts, with electricity sometimes going down for 16 hours at a stretch. Local industries try to get by with diesel backup generators, but they're an expensive source of power. Even the city of Mumbai itself is now facing power cuts.
Wind power has proven attractive to help India meet power shortages, and the country now has the world's fifth biggest installed base of wind turbines. In the past five years, wind power systems providing 5 gigawatts of power have been set up, with up to 9 GW more expected to be added by 2012. Remote, exposed hilly areas in southern India and the central peninsula region have been identified as good places for wind farms. While most of them are based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, one of Asia's largest wind farms is based in the Satara region of western Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital. Areas around the city of Pune have been found suitable for wind farms, and one of Asia's largest wind turbine manufacturers, Suzlon Energy, is based here.
Suzlon was set up in 1995 and has been growing rapidly. Major power companies such as Reliance Energy, Tata Power and the state-run Hindustan Petroleum have all signed big deals with Suzlon for wind power systems. The business has been boosted by government mandates specifying a percentage use of renewable energy sources by power transmission and distribution companies. Suzlon also does business in India, China, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the USA.
Suzlon's big turbines feed power into the power grid, but some industrialists, tired of power cuts, have bought small turbines to ensure reliable power. Wind power users also get tax breaks from the government. However, at present only about 1% of India's power is provided by the wind. One government official calls wind power a "pipe dream", acknowledging that the potential capacity of 45 GW is not unrealistic, but adding that's only a fraction of India's power requirements. At current rates of growth, Indian wind power will max out in about 20 years. Advocates admit that wind power will always be a secondary power source, but add that in absolute terms 45 GW is a great deal of power, and that India can use all the green power the country can get.
ED: In related news: although there has been some fuss over the tendency of wind turbines to kill birds and bats, according to BUSINESS WEEK, a recent US National Academy of Sciences report suggested that even if US wind power were used to its maximum potential, the number of kills would be a fraction of that inflicted on bird populations by vehicles, power lines, and in particular (at least as far as birds are concerned) housecats. That is not exactly good news -- but at least it provides a bit of perspective.BACK_TO_TOP
* CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP (6): On Saturday, 19 May, I got around to the main objective of the trip, the Planes of Fame airshow at Chino. Not much to say about it as such, lots of World War II aircraft and displays, other than having an unusually rich complement of performances it was about the same as any other airshow.
I like getting pix of aircraft but I can't say I like airshows as such -- standing around in a mob all day in the hot sun is not my idea of fun in itself. I had to make a note to stay away from the front lines -- that's where the pushy people go. Once it was over, I promptly went back to the hotel. My feet were extremely sore and I was becoming nonfunctional. It was time to go home. I advanced my watch an hour to Colorado time, packed up my car as best I could, and went to bed.
* On Sunday, 20 May, I got up at dawn and was on the road out of LA. It was an uneventful trip out of California into Nevada. I did make a short stop near Barstow, California -- I had seen a tower off in the distance from the freeway while coming in and wondered if it was part of the old experimental "Solar One" solar thermal powerplant. That turned out to be the case and I got some pix of it.
I wanted to take a side trip east of Vegas to get some pix of Hoover Dam; I was so tired I was inclined to skip it, but it was part of my agenda. Since I had completed everything else on the list, I would have felt negligent in not taking care of that final detail -- and besides, I couldn't be in too much of a hurry, since I knew I'd make Cedar City, Utah, in the afternoon, and then all I would be able to do was kill time to the next morning.
I didn't regret the side trip. I took the freeway east of Vegas, driving past some of the suburban areas of the town -- the houses looked very neat and clean, not like the trashy areas around the Strip -- and after a modest drive made it down the canyonway towards the dam. The highway runs over the top, and somewhat to my surprise there was a security checkpoint. They were letting all the cars through but pulling off vans and the like, apparently on the rationale that it would take a truck-sized explosive charge to do the dam any real harm.
It was actually a bit congested at the dam, at least relative to the narrow winding highway. I was able to get some shots of the well-known intake towers and the back of the dam from a parking lot -- Lake Mead was very low, it was a dry winter in the region -- and then went back the way I came, trying to figure out how to get a shot of the front of the dam. Since I didn't want to have to pay parking and hassle with the visitor's center, I almost decided to pass up the chance; fortunately there was a turnout on the road for picture-taking, and I jumped out to get some shots. The canyon's so deep and rugged that the view of the front of the dam is limited, but the turnout was right next to one of the old cablecar towers that were used to haul concrete during the dam's construction, and I got a nice shot of it. It was easy to pull off up the road and get shots of the impressive electrical switchyard.
From that I was back on track to Cedar City, arriving late in the afternoon. Having time to kill proved dreadful, since my brain was approaching nonfunctionality and I was hard-pressed to find anything interesting to do. Next time I pack more old DVDs to have something to do when I'm not fit to do anything else. I wished I'd hung around in Las Vegas a bit longer -- I recalled later that the local university has this strange statue in the form of a giant abstract flashlight that I'd seen on my last trip there, and it was a pity I didn't get a shot of it.
* I got up early on Monday, 21 May, and was off from Cedar City as fast as I could leave. It was an uneventful drive back through the badlands of eastern Utah and western Colorado -- I did take some pix of the more impressive terrain out the side window while I was driving, and surprisingly some turned out fairly well -- but I made good time. Even getting caught up in a short-lived traffic jam in Denver didn't delay me much, and I was all but in my backyard by then anyway.
I tanked up when I arrived in Loveland and was pleased to see that I got 48.6 MPG, the best mileage of the journey. Overall, despite fuel prices being higher than they've ever been in the USA, gas wasn't really much of an expense on the trip since my fuel economy was good -- the worst I got was about 38 MPG. I think I could get 50 MPG if I drove just perfectly, without making a single stop, on benign roads, and with a bit of a tailwind. Oddly, although I was under the impression that use of air conditioning dents fuel mileage, it didn't seem to have much effect. I suppose if I were driving across the deserts of Arizona in July and had it up full blast all the time it might be more noticeable.
Anyway, I got home, unpacked, threw a week's laundry in the washing machine, took a bath, went to bed. It was a very productive trip, I accomplished everything on my agenda, and though I wasn't particularly scrimping, even buying some tools like the wi-fi card and some headphones, came in well under budget.
It took me a couple of days to get back on track -- it's hard to realize how much we end up juggling in our daily lives until we put it down for a while and then have to pick it up again. The lawn was a disaster since I hadn't mowed in ten days, with the cottonwood wool piled up around the edges as if somebody had torn apart an old mattress and strewn it around. There was also the post-trip logistics, such as archiving all my photos -- Bob help me if I lost them; if I trashed my old laptop PC on the trip it wouldn't bother me much, but if I lost all the pix the trip would be effectively down the drain.
A lot of people seem to find travel relaxing, but not me. I'm not complaining, a good trip is definitely worthwhile and productive, but being on the road beats the pulp out me. I end up relaxing when I get back home. Incidentally, all the trip pictures are on the website now, 280 total, just check "Latest Updates" on the photography page. It takes about ten minutes or more to prep an image for the website -- making sure the image is oriented, cropping it, altering contrast and hue, retouching if necessary, converting to JPEG and making thumbnails, setting up an index entry, and finally uploading and validating -- so it runs into a bit of time. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (5): Traffic control for railroads versus automobiles is generally designed to control automobile traffic across train tracks. Railroad traffic control is more oriented to preventing head-on or tail collisions, which automobile drivers usually are left to deal with on their own. With trains, it takes so long to stop that once another train has been spotted on the track, it's too late to do anything about it.
When trains were first invented in the 1830s, it was obvious that since trains could be operating at different speeds or even opposite directions on the same track, some means had to be introduced to eliminate conflicts. However, signaling was a problem because trains were the fastest method of communication available at the time and there was no way to get a message ahead of a train. Strict timetables were drawn up to reduce the chance of collisions, but unfortunately there was no way to determine if a train had broken down and was blocking the tracks.
The invention of the telegraph provided the solution to this problem. The result was what was called "block signaling", in which a track was divided into segments or "blocks", with a warning signal at each end of the block to indicate if the block was occupied. Another train would have to wait until the block was clear before proceeding. The original implementation was, as typical of those days, labor-intensive, with two-story brick or wood towers set up at intervals along the track and linked by telegraph. Some of the towers survive today as historical curiosities.
Automation began to be introduced in the 1870s, using the railroad tracks themselves as a sensor to see if a train was in a particular block. All that had to be done was set up an electric circuit between the two rails of a section of track, with a passing train closing the circuit with its wheels and axles. This would automatically set a signal indicating that the block was in use. The detection scheme was more complicated in practice than it sounds on paper, since there would be some leakage current through the ground on an unoccupied track, particularly in damp conditions and due to rust and grime the connection through the train wheels and axles tended to vary in resistance as well. The basic scheme is still in use, but the original DC electric circuit scheme has given way to a pulsed electric scheme, with different pulse patterns allowing different blocks to be discriminated.
The railroads used to run copper aerial lines alongside tracks to handle further signaling tasks, but these days the railroads are generally dependent on buried fiber-optic lines. In some places the lines persist, though they can be difficult to distinguish from old-fashioned rural phone lines.
Automated track systems may be linked into a "centralized track control (CTC)" system, in which a control center monitors all the railroad traffic in a region, permitting safer and more efficient use of the system. CSX Railroad, a big carrier in the eastern USA, has a CTC center in Jacksonville, Florida, that handles all the company's traffic. The system is still basically run in a manual fashion. Work has been performed on "movement planning" software that ensures the maximum utilization of rail lines, but it's trickier than it sounds. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* BETTER LIVING THROUGH BACTERIA? As mentioned here in the past, the human body, particularly the gut, is host to colonies of bacteria and other microorganisms, and in fact humans carry around about ten times more bacterial cells than there are cells in their own bodies. Some of these resident bacteria can be malign, but many of them are beneficial, elements in a long-established symbiotic system, and in fact we would die fairly quickly if they were all killed off.
The idea of optimizing bacterial colonies in the body has been acquiring momentum recently. As reported by WIRED.com ("Hacking Your Body's Bacteria for Better Health" by Brandon Keim), some researchers are saying the human inclination to kill off bacteria may be making us more prone to problems such as eczema, bowel irritation, even diabetes, and are using bacteria to treat such problems.
Some advocates of "probiotics" (bacterial treatments such as pills containing bacteria) are very enthusiastic about the concept, claiming it is highly effective against eczema, acne, bowel irritation, and even premenstrual syndrome -- though clinical trial data on probiotics is still sketchy. One study has shown that infants fed probiotics were somewhat less likely to develop eczema. Advocates of probiotics believe that widespread use of disinfectants and antibiotics may be unbalancing our immune systems, and that exposure to microbes early in life tends to "calibrate" the immune system,
The health-food movement is already on board probiotics, selling them to women to help treat yeast infections. However, researchers warn that over-the-counter probiotics are of variable quality, sometimes containing bacterial strains whose effects are actually unclear, and in many cases the bacteria are all dead and useless anyway. In fact, there's considerable skepticism that we know enough about our resident bacteria to really obtain much leverage from them just yet. Some researchers feel that a major program is required, a "Gut Genome Project" to genetically nail down the bacterial colonists in our digestive tract. This would be challenging, since there are a wide range of species and strains of microorganisms in our bodies, but it would be a major step towards understanding, and possibly making effective use of, the "micro-ecology" that all humans carry around with them.BACK_TO_TOP
* PERSONAL RAPID TRANSPORT: One of the classic gimmicks of old world fairs is the "personal rapid transport (PRT)" system -- something like a light rail system except that everyone gets their own vehicle that takes them to a destination without having to make stops in between. So far, PRT's not proven practical, but as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Beyond The Stagecoach", 10 March 2007), the idea hasn't died out.
In a typical PRT system concept, tracks or elevated rails are run through a network of small, closely-spaced stations, with streams of driverless pods accommodating up to four passengers running through the network. On arrival, a pod is shunted off to a siding to allow the passengers to debark while the other pods rolled on unimpeded. Critics of the idea suggest that it is inherently expensive, but advocates say that in principle it has cost advantages: since the pods don't have to be built as big as a light rail train, they are cheap, and the rail system can be built lightly as well. Since the pods are automated, they can be driven closely together to ensure high utilization of the line, and since a pod only travels when it has passengers, the overall system would always be carrying a fairly high passenger load.
PRTs have been envisioned as useful for moving folks around smallish cities and large public spaces such as fairgrounds or airports. The first major effort to built a PRT began in 1972, when US President Richard M. Nixon claimed that if America could send three men 200,000 miles to the Moon, then the US could also move 200,000 men three miles to work. He pushed through a demonstration system at the University of West Virginia. In the meantime, prototype work was performed in Germany, France, and Japan.
The West Virginia system was the only one to even actually run. The critics had some justification in their claims that a PRT was expensive, since the cost of the full system, originally estimated at $14 million USD, skyrocketed to $126 million. All the other schemes were similarly killed off by rising costs. In the 1990s, Raytheon tried to promote a PRT system near Chicago that had to be dumped when cost projections rose to about $30 million USD per kilometer.
Now a startup firm named Advanced Transport Systems of the UK, headed by an entrepreneur with an academic background named Martin Lowson, is trying again. Lowson believes all the technologies for a PRT system are now at hand and such a system can be built using off-the-shelf technologies, at a cost of about $10 million USD per kilometer. That sounds like a lot, but it's about as much as a dedicated bus lane costs. The PRT comes in cheaper, at least on paper, with operating costs 40% less than a bus line because there are no drivers, and the PRT network takes up less space than a bus lane because the pods are much narrower.
BAA, the firm that operates Heathrow and a number of other airports in the UK, is impressed by Lowson's calculations. Not only has BAA ordered a PRT system to link Heathrow's new terminal and the site's satellite car parks, but has also bought a 25% stake in Advanced Transport Systems. The PRT network will go into initial operation in 2008; it will have five stations and carry 250,000 passengers a year. If the PRT system flies right, BAA may expand it to cover the entire airport, carrying 3 million passengers a year.
Other firms are proposing PRT systems as well, but not surprisingly skeptics are yet to be convinced. The critics not only worry about the practicality and cost-effectiveness of PRT systems, but also worry that the system will be an eyesore. The European Commission conducted a study of four PRT schemes and concluded that they seemed practical, but would stand or fall on the decisions of uncertain local authorities -- who might have good reasons to fear that they were jumping onto a white elephant. The Heathrow PRT system may be a significant exercise in determining the future of the concept.BACK_TO_TOP
* STRUGGLE FOR THE POLE: The Arctic regions have long been the domain of explorers, few others seeing much reason to spend time in such an inhospitable region, but as reported in BBC.com ("Arctic Neighbours Draw Up Battle Lines", by Lee Carter), the north polar region is becoming the target for a resource war over what may prove to be massive deposits of seafloor minerals, oil, and natural gas.
In early August 2007, a Russian research minisub that was helping map out the Lomonosov Ridge -- an undersea mountain range extending from the Russian mainland to Greenland -- dropped a Russian flag on the seafloor under the North Pole. The Canadians are also interested in polar resources, and the action provoked a comment from Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay: "You can't go around the world these days dropping flags somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th Century. They're fooling themselves." The Canadian government is now trying to assert their own claims to the polar region, with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserting: "Canada has taken its sovereignty too lightly for too long. This government has put a big emphasis on reinforcing and strengthening our sovereignty in the Arctic."
In fact, nobody's claims in the polar region are well established at the moment. Legal jurisdiction over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean is actually regulated by the 1982 United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea, which has been ratified by Russia, Canada and Denmark. The USA is expected to ratify it in 2008. It might seem that the Arctic Ocean is open territory as are other seas, but the Convention has a qualification in that seafloor geological structures that can be shown to be extensions of a nation's continental shelf can be used to determine sovereignty.
The Russian minisub's planting of the Russian flag on the seafloor was really just a stunt for domestic consumption and was not meant to have any political significance elsewhere. What was more significant was that the minisub was part of a project to validate Russian claims to the region. Says Professor Michael Byers, a scholar of international law at the University of British Columbia: "The Russians are fully committed, at a political and scientific level, to filing a comprehensive scientific claim, with the United Nations. They're perfectly entitled to do so, in fact I think we should celebrate that they're working within the framework of international law." The Russians are not trying to stake out a claim that will be backed up with firepower.
Byers adds that the Russians aren't the only ones performing publicity stunts, with Canadian politicians posturing about the issue to their own electorate, though he doesn't see it as much of an issue: "Politicians in Russia or Canada can never lose domestically by standing up for sovereignty in the Arctic. But underlying all of the rhetoric is the very important fact that all of the Arctic countries are working within a legal framework." It is generally believed that in the end the result of all this agitation will be an agreement to set boundaries, with some horse trading for where claims overlap. The Convention only provides a framework for discussions; it does not provide any adjudication or enforcement of claims.
The reason there's a rush at the present time is that the Convention requires signatories to present their claims within ten years of ratification -- with Russia facing a 2009 deadline and Canada a 2013 deadline. The US didn't ratify the Convention because of congressional concerns over giving up US rights to global bodies. However, faced with the prospect of being dealt out the game, the Bush II Administration is now pushing for ratification.
Canada is also dealing with another controversy over the polar region. With the polar icecap melting, the seas north of Canada are now becoming a practical Northwest Passage for shipping. Canada insists that the waterway is under Canadian control, but the Americans insist the waterway is international, open to all. The Harper government is now planning to build a deep-water port and a military training base in the northlands. Some are a bit skeptical that the Northwest Passage is any big deal. Although it could cut about 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) off a voyage from Europe to Asia, one observer asks: "Has anybody done the economics?" That point has been taken and studies are in progress.
So far, not much has been made of the environmental impact of the race for polar resources, though ironically it has partly been driven by the melting of sea ice due to global warming. Some of the native groups in Canada's north have expressed concerns, but the competition for the region continues to ramp up, with Denmark sending a scientific team to consider the merits of Danish claims to the region.
Despite the competition, the sheer hostility of the Arctic forces the players to cooperate. There are scientific collaborations, and Russian icebreakers have lent a hand to expeditions by other nations. Once all the dust settles and the Arctic borderlines are in place, everybody will likely be working together in a businesslike fashion to exploit the region.BACK_TO_TOP
* CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP (5): On Friday, 18 May, I did the Disneyland thing. I got there a bit early, thinking it opened at 08:00 when it actually opened at 09:00, but Disney is good at handling crowds -- they opened up the Main Street section at 0830 to let people mill around in the shops, and then opened the rest of the site at 09:00.
I spent an hour or so walking around getting pix with my big camera -- I figured I'd then stash it in a locker to go on the thrill rides. I went through Main Street, getting pictures of the big Percheron horses more or less drawing the trolleys, and a shot of a French Hotchkiss 75 millimeter field gun set up as a prop in the "town square". I felt a bit amused at being one of the few people who would zero in on military hardware in a place like Disneyland.
Thence over to Tomorrowland. I had to get some shots of the Astro Orbiter ride, which is at the core just a typical carney ride in which people fly in rocketships around a central pylon on arms that shift up and down. However, the decor is elaborate, to put it mildly -- along the lines of an old sci-fi pulp magazine cover and very dynamic. Another interesting item in the center of Tomorrowland square is what looks like a neck-high brown marbled bowling ball, sitting on a fountain that streams water over its surface, allowing kids to come up and gradually get its mass to spinning.
I did a quick jump over to the California Adventures theme park -- it was completely new to me, it not having been built last I was there. Like all Disney theme parks, it's a composite of several smaller theme parks, accessed through a central Sunshine Plaza with a huge sunburst sculpture:
At the end of the street going into the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, there's a facade giving a 1940s vision of Hollywood. It was somewhat disorienting to look at, since was clearly a false front but appeared to have depth. It wasn't until I got an oblique view of it that I figured out what was going on -- the facade was three-dimensional, with the elements built with skewed perspective giving an illusion of substantially greater depth. It was very effective, pushing all the right buttons in my brain depth-perception circuits even as I realized that something wasn't quite right.
I did end up going on the MONSTERS INC ride. A lot of the Disney movie-oriented rides are essentially traditional "crazy house" rides jazzed up to tell a skit using robot manikins and other props, and that was what the MONSTERS INC ride was all about -- with the skit based on the plot of the MONSTERS INC movie. It was fun but not memorable, except for one manikin of sneaky Randall, the chameleonlike villain of the movie, saying he was going to pull some sneaky stunt -- and then literally disappearing!
Then I went over to the SOARIN' OVER CALIFORNIA ride in Golden State, which was a virtual reality ride in which the audience was hauled up in front of a screen on seats using hydraulic arms, to then fly over California scenery. It was impressive -- I kept leaning forward so I could have an even better feeling of flying, though I kept lifting my feet so I wouldn't hit a tree or something like that.
I went back to Disneyland and stashed the camera in a locker, then returned to the rides. Hitting the SPACE MOUNTAIN roller-coaster at Disney was high on my priority list -- I'd ridden it twice before, once in California and once in Florida, and it's likely the most memorable roller-coaster I've ever seen. It's all indoors, running through dark tunnels decorated by starlights and the like, giving an impression of a journey on warpdrive, supported by elaborate propworks. It's actually a dinky coaster, going no faster than 45 KPH (28 MPH), getting its gee forces out of sharp turns, but the layout makes it a spectacular ride.
I was worried because I'd been suffering from inner ear problems for the last few years, and I was afraid that after I rode the coaster I'd be too giddy and sick to stand up. However, I was careful to make sure I tried to keep by head aligned vertically with the gee forces, and when I got off I felt fine. It's something of a relief to know that not all the problems I acquire with age are necessarily permanent. I suppose I'll have to worry about heart conditions as I get older -- but then again, dying of a heart attack on a roller coaster seems like a fun way to go out.
Thence over to the BUZZ LIGHTYEAR attraction, another crazy house ride with the gimmick that everybody gets to shoot laser pistols cabled to the cars -- which pivot around under control of a knob -- and rack up scores. I did poorly, but it did take me a bit to figure out the "laser tag" system. I found it faintly obnoxious, too frantic to be much fun.
After that, I went to the MATTERHORN BOBSLED roller-coaster -- incidentally, it was the first steel-rail roller-coaster ever built -- and then to a small coaster, GADGET'S GO-COASTER, in Mickey's Toontown that was fun. Last time I was there they were still building the INDIANA JONES ADVENTURE ride and missed it, but I this time I got in a line that snaked down through a cavern, jumping on board an "all-terrain vehicle" that bounced and snaked through a dark creepshow. I didn't much care for it, I don't find it fun to get banged around, and the ride theme had a disjointed feel -- SPACE MOUNTAIN is more my style.
It was getting late and my feet were really sore, and I debated whether I wanted to ride the CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN' roller-coaster at California Adventures. However, I didn't want to leave without giving it a shot, so I stood in line, sore feet and all. I didn't regret it. When the coaster train moved out, it rolled up to a set of fins in the middle of the trackway, and then just sat momentarily. There was a sound system in each seat, playing something like surfer rock, and then a voice said: "And AWAY we GO!" Suddenly I was shoved back in my seat by gee forces while the train accelerated in a burst, to then soar over the hills and turns. It had a full inverted loop, and though I usually am not at all exciteable on a coaster, I just had to scream "BANZAI!" as I went over the top. Turns out that CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN' uses a linear magnetic drive system -- no lift hill, no lift chain. It was a big surprise to get that initial kick at the outset and to get an occasional surge on a curve: "Now this is my style!"
There was a second, small coaster called MULHOLLAND MADNESS nearby. It looked like a lot of fun, but unfortunately it was broken and nobody could say when it would get back online. It was enough for the day, I was tired and sore and too thick-headed to do anything but want to go back to the motel and lie down. My feet were throbbing so hard I could easily take my pulse just lying there. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (4): Trains and automobiles often cross paths, with potentially disastrous results for automobiles -- less so for trains. The first issue in resolving this conflict is figuring out how to get a road across a set of tracks. That requires filling in the roadbed in some way between the tracks. The cheap and dirty way to do it is to lay down a set of railroad ties, but this is a rough ride, particularly for bicyclists. Laying down pavement is a good solution from the point of view of drivers, but the pavement then has to be jackhammered out when the track is maintained. A reasonable compromise is a mat made of some sort of high-durability polymer.
Given that trains don't stop very quickly, drivers have to stay out of the way of trains, not the reverse. Warnings to drivers range from the simple crossbuck sign, used for light traffic routes where trains can be seen from a distance, to the urban blinking lights and crossgates. The controller system for the crossgates is surprisingly sophisticated, since it has to calculate many variables -- for example, how fast is the train going? The gates need to be dropped when the train is a good distance away if it's going fast, but if it's going slow or halted there's no reason to block traffic. Once the train has passed, the signal system has to figure out if it's going to back up. This is not so hard to figure out in modern days of digital controller systems, but once upon a time it was all done electromechanically.
By the way, the warning systems are installed by the railroads, not the government, and so the train warnings don't stylistically match other traffic warnings and signals. Another nice thing to know is that the guardrails are designed to give way easily -- they might scratch up the paint on an auto, but they won't cause any major damage if a driver rams through them.
When approaching a crossing, the usual signal from a train is two long blasts, a toot, and then a wail that lasts until the train has cleared the crossing. Other signals include a short toot for "stop"; two long blasts for releasing the brakes, or "go"; and two short toots for a general acknowledgement -- if you give the "whistle" hand signal to a friendly engineer, you'll likely get two short toots back. All crossings are numbered, by the way, with the value assigned by the US Department of Transportation and the American Association of Railroads. The number is usually on a small plaque somewhere around the crossing, and it is useful when cellphoning in an emergency report.
* Some other interesting railroad hardware includes:
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* FLY VIRGIN: A WIRED reporter named Dylan Tweney recently reported on Richard Branson's new Virgin America airlines, providing a review whose conclusions were summarized in the report's title: "Virgin America: Like a Multimillion-Dollar IPod That Flies."
Virgin America is not your father's airline, with Tweney praising its "geek friendliness". In each bank of three coach seats there are two 110-VAC outlets for notebook users so they don't have to run down their batteries. There are also USB plugs to allow charging up USB devices such as iPods, though they don't provide enough juice to charge up an iPhone. One problem is that the plugs are under the seats, so the connections have to be made by feel.
The seats are unusually comfortable for coach class, and the cabin is illuminated with "mood lighting" whose color shifts through 12 different hues, depending on the time of day. Each seat also has a phone-jack style Ethernet connector, but it's nonfunctional for the time being; the company hasn't decided yet whether to offer the Ethernet hookup or wi-fi. Once that issue is resolved, the passengers will be able to get internet access, with different connection speeds offered under a scale of service fees.
A wi-fi network is already present, but passengers don't have access to it. It's used by the inflight entertainment system and ordering system -- the flight attendants monitor it using a tablet PC. The entertainment system is centered around a 23 centimeter (9 inch) color flat-panel display in the rear of each seat. The screens are touch-sensitive and are mated to a wired remote in the armrest. The remote includes volume, channel, forward, and back controls; an alphanumeric keyboard; gaming buttons; and a slot for a credit card to allow passengers to pay for all the whizzy services.
The inflight entertainment system is driven by four servers and provides a selection of over 30 movies at $8 USD each, live satellite TV, and more than 3,000 music tracks. A passenger can build playlists and have them stored in an account for use on later flights. The touchscreen can be used to order food and drinks, and to text-chat with other passengers. The games are relatively simple-minded at the present time -- multiplayer games are coming down the road but not available yet. The passenger can also bring up a map to show the current location of the aircraft. The system is all run by Linux -- no command-line access, sorry.BACK_TO_TOP
* I SEE YOU: Tagging animals with radio transmitters has proven extremely valuable to naturalists, allowing the researchers to examine the movements of animal populations in real time. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("No Hiding Place", 10 March 2007), some naturalists have ideas for greatly expanding the scope of the animal-tagging exercise.
Martin Wikelski of Princeton University wants to scale down tracking transmitters so they can be fitted to any size of bird, and even be carried by big insects. The general rule of thumb is that a transmitter worn by an animal can be no more than a twentieth of its weight. Since the smallest current transmitters weigh about 10 grams, that means the smallest animal that can wear them can be no less than 200 grams in weight, and so about 80% of bird species and two-thirds of mammals can't be tracked. Wikelski and a group of colleagues also interested in animal tracking are now proposing to set up a satellite-based tracking system using one-gram transmitters, with the effort named the "International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS)".
One of the problems with scaling down the transmitters is providing adequate battery life: small batteries generally mean short battery life. A team of researchers at Cornell University have a plan to use a wideband "spread spectrum" transmitter that smears the signal over a range of frequencies to allow a low-power signal to be picked up even in the presence of noise. They figure a one-gram tracking tag using spread-spectrum transmission would stay operational for several months, transmitting such data as the subject's breathing and heart rate, as well as its geographic location.
Spread spectrum does require a sophisticated receiver to sort out the faint signal, and that's where the second element of the system comes in. ICARUS will use a network of space satellites fitted with spread-spectrum receivers to pick up the signals from the animals being tracked. The signals being weak, the satellites will have to be placed in a low Earth orbit, maybe about 500 kilometers (300 miles) high. Since the residual upper atmosphere at such an altitude causes drag, the satellite will need a relatively large fuel supply to help it maintain orbit.
A colleague of Wikelski's at Princeton named Jeremy Kasdin is working on the satellite system, and believes the spacecraft can be built cheaply with off-the-shelf assemblies. He has demonstrated a lashup to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center. The next step will be to use a high-flying unmanned aerial vehicle to provide a proof of concept. Implementing the satellite system will require at least $50 million USD in funding, and the ICARUS group has yet to find a sponsor. However, there are many groups -- the armed services and even international news organizations -- that have very good reasons to want to be able to track their people in the field, and the money may not be that hard to come by.BACK_TO_TOP
* KGB INC: The modern Russian state is a puzzling political entity, different from both the old Soviet state and a Western, or even an Eastern European, capitalistic democracy. An interesting article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Making Of A Neo-KGB State", 25 August 2007), hit the obvious nail on the head: it's one of the few countries where the internal security service not only has slipped off the leash, it has ended taking charge.
Ironically, it had been the KGB that had helped bring about the collapse of the USSR in the first place. The KGB had always been subordinate to Party rule -- but as an intelligence service, KGB officers knew how bad off the Soviet Union was relative to the competition and knew that the system had to be reformed. Unfortunately, when the reformers began to target the KGB, in 1991 the organization's bosses resorted to a coup to try to set matters right for themselves, and only ended in toppling the old regime.
The half-million members of the KGB had good reason to dread the future, but the new Russian state under Boris Yeltsin did little more than reorganize the organization as the "Ministry of Internal Security", or "FSB" in its Russian acronym, leaving its cadres intact. To be sure, the FSB was weakened under the new regime, not sharing in the massing looting of state resources that took place under Yeltsin's rule. FSB officers could only fume as a new "oligarchy" arose while they remained unpaid. What made it all the more infuriating to the traditionally antisemitic security service was that many of the new oligarchs were Jews.
However, if the FSB was down, it was not out. FSB people moved on to other jobs; many formed up private security firms to provide a bit of law and order in a country where that was in short supply, while others went into the government and gradually gained influence. In 1998, Yeltsin appointed an FSB officer named Vladimir Putin to head the ministry, and the next year elevated Putin to the post of prime minister. When Yeltsin resigned at the end of that year, Putin became president, telling his colleagues: "A group of FSB operatives, dispatched under cover to work in the government of the Russian Federation, is successfully fulfilling its task." He was only half joking.
Putin loaded his government with ex-KGB people and proceeded to restore central authority. The oligarchs were told to toe the line, and when they didn't, they felt the full wrath of the conveniently inconsistent laws of the Russian state. Governors were brought to heel, with the state taking control of their budgets and the appointment process. Independent media was all but stamped out, and those who were inclined to challenge the order or seemed too chummy with foreigners were stepped on.
The new system is not really a revival of the old Communist system. Russia's leaders are repressive, but they are selectively so, seeing no useful purpose in the old Stalinist habit of mass terror when making a few arrests will keep the public in line. They are also more or less capitalistic, enjoying the luxuries available in a consumer society. The "more or less" qualification is important, however, in that the state retains control of major industries, and even where the industries aren't state-owned, FSB reservists are present in the management hierarchy, to make sure that "companies don't make decisions that aren't in the interests of the state," as one beneficiary put it. In addition, as one of these "watchdogs" put it: "You get a huge salary and you get to keep your FSB card."
Although this sort of mingling of government and commerce would raise a storm in any Western democracy, the oligarchs were not popular in Russia and the public has generally been happy to see them brought to leash. Unfortunately, as an ex-KGB man who went fully over to the business environment put it, the arrangement is for the convenience of the leadership and has nothing to do with the public interest or efficiently getting things done: "They know how to break up a company or to confiscate something, but they don't know how to manage a business. They use force simply because they don't know any other method."
Another consequence of the Russian state being controlled by staffers with an intelligence background is that suspicion has become institutionalized. Intelligence organizations are necessarily suspicious by nature. The spooks found the weakness of the Russian state in the 1990s intolerable, and now that the state is being buoyed up by oil sales, have been eager to assert Russian strength. There is some rationale for doing so, but it also involves a considerable amount of xenophobia -- part of which is focused on Russian citizens perceived as "disloyal". In response to the infamous assassination of muckraking journalist Anna Politskovskaya, one FSB official commented: "I don't know who killed her, but her articles were beneficial to the Western press. She deserved what she got."
The resurgence of Russian nationalism also goes over well with the public, but in the current climate nothing seems likely to change the fact that Russia is one of the most bureaucratic, corrupt, and criminalized nations in the world. There is no real pressure for reform and over the long run, Russia appears doomed to stagnate. As one FSB official put it: "People who come from the KGB are tacticians. We have never been taught to solve strategic tasks." He also worries that the agency has been corrupted even on its own terms, registering great embarrassment over the murder by polonium poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, a matter that is still generating bad press: "We never sank to this level. What a blow to the country's reputation!"BACK_TO_TOP
* CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP (4): On Thursday, 17 May I went to San Diego to visit the well-known zoo at Balboa Park there, as well as the air museum also located in the park -- and then the aircraft carrier MIDWAY, set up as a museum on the waterfront. It was going to be a full day's trip and so I wanted to be at the zoo at 9 AM when it opened -- which meant that I would end up driving south to San Diego during rush hour. Rush-hour traffic in Anaheim didn't seem too bad on Wednesday and I thought I might not have too much trouble -- but at about 8:15 AM I was gridlocked on the approaches to San Diego. It seemed endless, but I figured, based on my experience with Denver traffic, the gridlock should start to ease about 8:45 as the overflow drained off, and by 9:00 AM the traffic was flowing again. I got to the zoo only slightly late.
I'd been to the zoo before and it was quite impressive, though my main objective was simply to get a picture of a tree kangaroo at their exhibit. Other fun included going into one of the aviaries and encountering a bird that was about the size of a rooster but had a long curved bill. There was a woman with white shoes standing there and for some reason it was sitting there pecking around at them. I went up to it and crouched in front of it, which seemed to annoy the thing -- it croaked at me, running around and trying to beat me up with its wings. At least it didn't have spurs, it might have been able to do me some damage if it did. I just held my hand over its head and that seemed to intimidate it enough to make it back off, but it was still annoyed for some reason.
I managed to get pix of pandas for the first time. Incidentally, the zoo is on hilly terrain and it can be something of a trudge to get around -- not as steep as the Cheyenne Mountain zoo in Colorado Springs, but substantially bigger.
After visiting the zoo, I went to the air museum. I'd also been there before and knew it wasn't much of a museum, my only real objective being to get a picture of the Convair Sea Dart mounted in front. The Sea Dart was an experimental jet fighter seaplane of the 1950s that landed on skis -- the program was a bust, the museum inherited one of the prototypes. The museum did have a fair set of aircraft engines and I got a fair number of pix to support that fetish.
The last stop in San Diego was the MIDWAY aircraft carrier museum, and it was definitely a worthwhile stop for an aviation enthusiast. The carrier itself was not of great interest to me, but it had a splendid, well-preserved collection of aircraft on the flight deck and I got some fine pix.
* I was hoping to get out of San Diego early enough not to get nicked by afternoon rush hour, and though there was some temporary congestion north of town I figured I was home clear. I did have time to pull off the freeway to get a shot of a surrealistic-looking church; turned out to be a Mormon church, twin spires, gleaming white, an odd combination of modernistic and a bit kitschy. Unfortunately, no sooner had I hit Tustin I got gridlocked again. I looked at the clock in my car: 4 PM on the nose -- hmm, that definitely figures. Actually, that jam turned out to be due to a tractor-trailer rig stalled on the road; once I got free of that I was OK.
Having not had much to eat all day while walking for hours through the zoo, I was very hungry and went to the Anaheim Outback steak house for dinner. I got the cheapest and smallest cut I could because I can't eat that much meat, and I still got as much as I could pack away. Then I ordered a slice of cheesecake with caramel topping for dessert -- and they gave me a piece so big that I was somewhat shocked. I did what I could with it, but it was really dessert for two.
Traveling's always feast or famine with me. Sometimes I can't find anyplace that looks appetizing or don't want to take the time to go to a restaurant to eat. I end up getting a meal of sorts at a 7-11 convenience store, which are set up as something of a low-budget deli. It's sort of like the road-trip equivalent of military rations -- or worse, somebody once observed that their concept of a client is Homer Simpson -- but it's quick and cheap and beats not eating. I did get into the relatively new McDonald's "snack wrappers" on the trip, which are grilled chicken strips in a flour tortilla with fixings; they're cheap, tasty, and not an insult to the digestion as is a Big Mac. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (3): Trains generally have problems with steep grades and sharp curves, so not surprisingly the rails are laid out to avoid such things. Normally, curves are only about 3 or 4 degrees per 30 meters (100 feet); the maximum curve even on a low-speed track is about 13 degrees, since otherwise railroad cars might stick out too far on the turn and clip a train on a neighboring track. High-speed lines usually feature banked curves.
Grades are rarely steeper than 1% and almost never steeper than 2%. There are a few steeper grades, but they require that extra engines be hooked up to get the train over the summit. Of course there are the mountain railroads, using narrow-gauge trains, usually with an engine that features a cogged wheel engaging a set of pinions built into the track, but these are of course specialized systems, curiosities of particular interest to trainspotters. Not too surprisingly, such mountain railroad systems are particularly common in Switzerland -- with about as many there as there are in the rest of the world.
While dual tracks are common, some long rail links only have a single track. Obviously they can only support traffic one way, with trains organized in "platoons" -- one platoon going east for a while, then another going west for a while. Such lines usually feature "siding" tracks to allow one train to move aside for another and then move back directly onto the track. The little dead-end spur lines to factories and other major customers are sometimes called sidings, but they are more properly called "leads".
A train can turn around using an arrangement known as a "Y" or properly "wye", which involves a main rail line with a spur at a right angle, connected by switched curves in opposite directions. The train curves off onto the spur, the switch is thrown to change the connection between the two lines, and then the train backs up onto the main line again. It's like pulling into a driveway to turn around.
* Everyone is familiar with the railroad switch, in which a set of tapered rails can be moved to allow a train to transfer from one track to another. The professionals actually call them "turnouts", for what it's worth. The curved sections of rail have the normal "tee" cross-section at the "head" and taper down to the "tail". Of course they come in parallel pairs, one for the main line on one side of the rail and the second for the branch line on the other. There are different "grades" of turnouts with different lengths; the longer the turnout, the faster a train can travel over it -- but the longer turnouts are also more expensive and require more force to switch.
When switched, one turnout rail is connected and the other is disengaged. The switching is performed by a lever mechanism, designed to snap to one position or another, since an intermediate position might mean disaster. The switching is rarely done manually any longer, the lever mechanism is much more generally handled by an electric motor under remote control.
Of course, at one point in a turnout a rail must cross another, and there is a special assembly called for some mysterious reason a "frog" with slots and guide plates to make sure the train stays on the desired track. Where two tracks cross but don't switch, there's a structure more intuitively called a "diamond" that consists of four frogs -- again, with different grades, ranging from a right angle down to about three degrees. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* GANGSTERS WITH FEATHERS: One of the amusing pastimes of evolutionary biologists is "evolutionary game theory". From the point of view of modern evolutionary science, species change is due to random mutation, with mutations that improve the "fitness" of an individual -- its ability to reproduce, to evade predators, to obtain food, to tolerate climate -- allowing it to outbreed less fit members of the same species and gradually dominate the population. Evolutionary game theory tries to show the details of how this happens.
For an interesting example, considered in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("An Offer You Can't Refuse", 10 March 2007), consider the cowbird. The cowbird is a reproductive parasite, with female cowbirds laying eggs in other birds' nests and the owners of the nest raising the cowbird chick. This sort of parasitism is generally associated with the cuckoo. The cuckoo will lay a single egg in another bird's nest, with the egg coloration matching that of the target species. When the cuckoo chick hatches, it shoves the rival eggs or hatchlings out of the nest.
That doesn't quite fit the cowbird approach. The cowbird egg doesn't look much like a warbler egg, and the cowbird chick seems generally inclined to tolerate its warbler nestmates. Two US naturalists, Jeffrey Hoover of the Illinois Natural History Museum and Scott Robinson of the University of Florida, performed an extended experiment to find out more about the cowbird's game. In the first phase of the experiment the two researchers set up 182 warbler bird-houses on narrow greased poles (the grease preventing ground-living predators from climbing up). Over six years, warblers laid eggs in 472 nests, about half of which were parasitized by cowbirds. Whether parasitized or not, almost all of the nests produced fledgling warblers.
Then the researchers changed the ground rules. Over the next seasons they removed the cowbird eggs from some of the parasitized nests, and also reduced the diameter of the entrances to some of the bird houses to keep out the bigger cowbirds. The results were interesting. It was no surprise that nests in bird houses where the cowbirds couldn't get in were happy homes, with an average of four fledglings being raised in each. However, in half the cases in which the cowbirds could get at the nests and the cowbird egg was removed, the warbler eggs were pecked open and the nest torn apart. These nests only successfully raised an average of a single fledgling. In contrast, nests where the cowbird egg was not removed raised an average of three fledglings.
In effect, the cowbirds were operating a "protection racket": raise our baby cowbird or bad things will happen to your nest. Allowing the warblers to raise their own chicks as well gave them an evolutionary incentive to go along. The cowbirds didn't stop at this ruthlessness either, since a fifth of the warbler nests in which cowbirds didn't lay an egg were also trashed. The trick is that the cowbird has to lay an egg that hatches at roughly the same time as the warbler eggs. If a cowbird finds a nest where that's not likely to happen, then if the first clutch is destroyed the warbler may lay another, giving the cowbird a second window of opportunity. It is said that Mother Nature is a bitch; that might be argued -- but the cowbird certainly is one.BACK_TO_TOP
* WHAT'S YOUR NAME?: One of the difficulties of translating somebody's name from one language to another is that there's often a number of perfectly legal ways to do it -- for example, Russian or Chinese names can be spelled in a wide variety of ways in English. As pointed out in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("What's In A Name?", 10 March 2007), such confusion in name translation can have serious implications.
In 1990, a Pakistani citizen named Mir Aimal Kansi used an alternate transliteration of his Urdu family name, Kasi, to obtain a visa from the American consulate in Karachi. He went to America, overstayed his one-month visa, and went to Pakistan's embassy in Washington DC to obtain a Pakistani passport, using the "Kansi" transliteration. He used the passport to obtain working papers and a driver's license. He then bought a gun and went on a shooting spree outside the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia, killing two CIA employees and wounding three more. Kansi spent four years on the run on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) "Most Wanted" list before being captured. He was executed in 2002.
According to the FBI, Kansi also signed his name as Mir Aimal Kanci, Mir Aman Qazi, Amial Han, and Mohammed Alam Kasi. The use of the name Mohammed opened up further possibilities for confusion, since there are 15 different ways to transliterate Mohammed into English. If the other 160-plus languages that use the Roman alphabet are factored in, the number of transliterations jumps to 200.
There are plenty of possibilities for confusion in writing down names. Single names are common in Indonesia, and what might seem to be part of a name may be the whole name. Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans write family names first, but some Asians reverse the order when writing their names in Roman text. The Chinese family name of Zhou might be written in Roman text as Jhou, Joe, Chou, or Chow. The common Iranian family name that is transliterated to Jafari in English is written Djafari or Dschafari in Germany, The common Iranian first name of Shahram becomes Scharam in German and Chahram in French. Trying to track variations in name translations makes tracking suspects on watch lists more difficult, and Arabic terrorists make a regular habit of exploiting every possible legitimate variation on the transliteration of their names. In response, smarter software has been developed to sift through different spellings of names to see if they match entries on terrorist watch lists.
The problem started to become acute after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. The international anti-terrorist effort ramped up, with the result that investigators were flooded with a baffling array of name variations obtained by the authorities in different countries. In 2004, investigation into the 9-11 showed how the hijackers had managed to slip through watch lists by playing transliteration games with their names. In response In-Q-Tel, which funds developments for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began pouring money into software that wouldn't be so easy to fool. Officials now say they have "solid, robust stuff."
At its core, the software works with alternate lists of names and the patterns by which those names can be combined. Arabic is one of the worst cases for the task because not only can names be spelled in a variety of ways, they can be structured in a variety of ways, for example using titles such as bin ("son of", which can also be spelled ben or ibn); abu ("father of", also spelled abou); sheikh ("tribal leader", also spelled sheik, shaikh, shaykh, cheik, and cheikh); or haji ("Mecca pilgrim", also spelled hajj, haiji, hadj, haaji, haajj, haajii, and haadji). The article al (sometimes spelled el) can be used in a number of ways or simply omitted.
Trying to get all the relevant players on board the latest software has been a chore. The CIA got up to speed relatively quickly, but the US State Department, which issues passports greatly desired by terrorists, was a relatively laggard. The State Department has now brought itself up much closer to spec in screening names. Other organizations are coming on board as well -- for example postal services that need to be on the lookout for parcels being sent by suspicious characters. Financial service companies want to know who they're issuing credit cards to -- though they're looking out for credit-card cheats as much or more than terrorists.
How big the business in name-matching software really is remains unclear, since the players generally try to keep a low profile. About 25 firms are involved in the USA and a number in Europe. Some software doesn't just hunt for name variations, it also sees what information can be pulled out of a name in itself -- in some countries names are closely linked to specific locales, occupations, or social standing -- and hunts through records to see if the places a particular name or set of names pops up suggests a pattern. New generations of software promise to do an even better job of penetrating the screen of noise that terrorists can generated simply by an imaginative approach to spelling their names.BACK_TO_TOP
* WHERE IS EVERYBODY? There are a number of organizations that have good reason to want to know how the population of a city moves around every day. Urban planners and traffic engineers have obvious reasons for interest in such matters, but some businesses have a need as well -- for example, to optimize operating hours, determine useful outlet locations, and figure out which billboards get the most exposure. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Go With The Flow", 10 March 2007), estimates can be obtain from traffic helicopters, traffic cameras, road sensors, and the like, but these approaches are cumbersome and give grainy results. Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a simpler approach: track people's mobile phones.
Mobile phone network operators necessarily keep track of what cell a cellphone is operating from to ensure that voice and text messages get to where they need to go. The MIT team obtained anonymous tracking data from two European cellphone operators, Telecom Italia and Mobilkom Austria, and created a system that displays the density of phone users as a 3D plot over a two-dimensional city map. With the colorful display, as one of the MIT researchers puts it, one can "see how the city is pulsating."
The cellphone mapping system is a cheap way to obtain survey data, and unlike road sensors it can deal with pedestrians and bicyclists. It is also possible to determine movements of subjects from one cell to another. Cellphone operators are likely to find selling anonymized cellphone tracking data an attractive addition to revenue in a highly competitive market.
Seat, a company in Milan, is a prime target for such a scheme. Seat provides real-time information on traffic jams to subscribers over the internet. The current technology used by the company to obtain such data is expensive and inexact. Cellphone data will be much cheaper and more exact; in a few years Seat hopes to be linked into automobile navigation systems, as well as offer traffic forecasts based on analysis of past data. Urban planners are big potential users, and in fact the city of Rome is close to coming on board. In 2006, MIT displayed an application of the mapping technology titled "Real-Time Rome" to Telecom Italia. Top management jumped at the scheme, as did Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni, and ATAC, the city transit authority. Where Rome goes, other cities are likely to follow.
ED: The shifting population maps look like they are absolutely fascinating and trance-inducing to watch. It seems likely that they will be put on public displays just for their entertainment value. However, it might also be a bit unsettling for cellphone users to be reminded of the fact that someone can track their movements.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE? During the summer I had an obsessive memory that I couldn't seem to get out of my head. As I recalled it, one day I was driving along and I saw an aircraft come up over the roofs of nearby houses. I'm pretty familiar with aircraft and it was like nothing I had ever seen, a big and exotic machine along the lines of the old XB-70 Mach 3 bomber, moving along slowly at low altitude with a low turbofan-sounding roar and being followed by a number of chase aircraft, which I recall looked like civilian light aircraft. I was astonished as the machine turned about 180 degrees and then departed over the rooflines again. I figured that it was something I would hear about in local news or in the aviation press soon enough, but I never heard a word.
The problem is that I am not sure when or where it happened -- I shrugged the matter off and didn't make a note of it. Though I rack my brains, I honestly can't nail down a single detail. Did it really happen or was it just a dream I once had? The imagery does not match that of my dreams, which are almost always muddy and incoherent, while this memory appears vivid. I've been searching the web for possible other testimonies -- it was over a residential area and more must have seen it -- but no joy. If it did happen, maybe nobody who saw it knew enough about aircraft to know they were seeing something strange. Then again, my memory suggested that the chase aircraft were keeping perfect station very close to the big machine, which is not easy to do -- and due to turbulence set up the big aircraft, very unsafe as well.
For now I'm not going to say for a second that it actually happened. The whole exercise suggests to me how conspiracy theorists get on a roll -- they have a vague, misleading image of something that happened and then, in their determination to nail it down, pile up details on it until they have something with no relationship to reality whatsoever. In any case, I'm taking no chances in the future -- I hardly ever drive out of the garage without a camera, and I keep my old pocket camera sitting at a place where I can get at it fast in the house, just in case I see something that I don't want to get away from me.
* Incidentally, having mentioned cameras I have to describe my relatively new Canon Powershot A710 pocket camera. My old little pocket Nikon Coolpix was a nice camera, but it I ended up wanting something more -- more zoom, bigger aperture, and so on -- so I decided to replace it with the Powershot. I've been impressed with it even though I haven't got much mileage out of it yet. It has a 6x optical zoom and 7.1 megapixel imager, plus some nice ergonomic features. For example, it has a small on-off button well distanced from the shutter button; the Coolpix had the power button right next to the shutter button, so I used to get confused when I was in a hurry and sometimes turn it off instead of take a picture. A very nice ergonomic feature is a zoom control built as a tabbed ring around the shutter-release button, instead of a rocker on the back; it makes zooming-and-shooting much easier. It did have an odd feature in that the tripod-mount socket was off to one extreme side of the base, which makes it a little unbalanced on a mini-tripod.
The relatively large aperture and an "image stabilization" feature allows me to take shots in shaded conditions that would make the Coolpix fall down. I made sure the thing had an optical viewfinder before I bought it, since I'd bought a Nikon Coolpix 710 in the interim that turned out not to have one. It never occurred to me that a camera wouldn't have an optical viewfinder and I found it a nuisance to have to shoot through the LCD; I quickly sold the thing off and used the proceeds to buy the Powershot. I also made sure that the Powershot ran off standard AA cells; it's not just expensive to have to buy proprietary batteries, but they tend to become obsolete fairly quickly and become a pain to replace.
In addition, I picked up a 58 millimeter accessories adapter, which snaps over the aperture after removing a protective ring. I picked up a shallow-focus lens so I could shoot insects and the like. I'm thinking of getting a zoom lens as well, but we'll see. When I use the auxiliary lenses I can't use the optical viewfinder. Since flash ROM is so cheap these days, I made sure I got a 2 gigabyte card for the camera; even on normal quality shots, that gives a capacity of over a thousand images. Imagine going back a quarter century and showing someone a camera that could take a thousand pictures without reloading! In another decade it might be ten thousand -- in fact, if I set it to 640x480 resolution, I get 10,000 images.BACK_TO_TOP