* Entries include: train bridge & tunnel infrastructure, Florida road trip, Danone bacterial biotech for yogurt, FBI DCSNet wiretap system, danger moose, geoweb technology, USA red tape, Chinese clone manufacture, improved oil platforms, warning schemes for nuclear depositories, wind-based power networking, India's railroads, Chinese military buildup, and Alex the genius African gray parrot.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR NOVEMBER 2007: I finally decided to include some news comments in the blog, just on the basis that a few years from now I might want to remember just what had been going on. Since we get a steady diet of this sort of thing -- one of the reasons I've avoided covering the news of the day in the past -- I'll try to put my own bent on it. I'll see if people call me up and start ranting at me for some idle comment on a matter I don't lose any sleep over one way or another, that being another reason I've avoided such topics in the past.
* There was the usual "trouble every day" in November, the big international headline-grabber being General Pervez Musharraf declaring a "state of emergency" in Pakistan and cracking down on rivals. The videos included what must be a first, or at least the damned unusual: scenes of gangs of lawyers in three-piece suits manning the barricades. Life imitates THE ONION News. The White House seems to be uncertain as to how to handle the whole thing -- General Musharraf's heavy-handed rule doesn't go down well here, but since he's trying to restrain Islamic militancy in Pakistan, there's some reluctance to crack down on him too hard.
* Although I tend to avoid Iraq news since it seems to have a dismal monotony to it -- nothing new, same old dreadful chaos -- BBC.com reports that the US troop surge and security crackdown seems to be working. Iraqi refugees are now increasingly coming back to Baghdad, having been reassured by relatives that their neighborhoods are reasonably safe again. Such independent statistics as are available confirm that the violence is on the decrease. The troops, who were becoming increasingly discouraged as everything went steadily to hell, are now feeling like they honestly are winning. Since the troops have the best view of the immediate battlefield reality this is very encouraging, all the more so because soldiers tend to take a cynical and negative view of how things are going.
Nobody's expressing more than cautious optimism, since everyone's seen things go south on a regular basis in the past. Even the Bush II Administration isn't making much of a fuss about such successes; they've trumpeted every move they've made over the last three years, only to have things go viciously wrong, and so now they're being more careful. However, the optimism seems to have a basis in fact, since the warring factions in Iraq appear to be finally getting sick of fighting each other, are realizing they're having a competition to see who can drill the most holes in the bottom of their mutual lifeboat, and understand that al-Qaeda just likes to kill people. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to stand down, and Sunni groups that had been fighting the Shiites and US forces have been working to improve security in their neighborhoods.
This leads to the odd situation in which US troops and Sunni militias end up cooperating on operations, when previously they'd been fighting each other. According to a story, one US soldier asked a Sunni militiaman: "I thought you wanted to kill me." The militiaman answered: "I do, but not today."
* Here in the states, the politicians have been hard on the campaign trail. Senator Clinton did a shrill job in a debate with the other Democrats -- BBC.com cited a citizen saying: "I already have a bossy wife at home, I don't need another in the White House." It is of course ironic that the Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, is also a pushy New Yorker. Ex-NYC mayor Ed Koch, on once being asked if Giuliani was racist, replied to the effect: "Certainly not! He's nasty to everybody."
It was also commented that arch-conservative Pat Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani was ironic, considering that Giuliani has been married several times and is soft on conservative issues such as abortion and gun control. However, if the alternative is Hillary Clinton, it's not too hard to see which way that wind is going to blow.
I rarely spend much emotional capital on politics -- an attitude which, incidentally, drives people who do absolutely around the bend for some reason -- and have no dread of either Clinton or Giuliani in the White House. Unfortunately for the Republicans, they've done a lot to discredit themselves and right now the bookies have the odds on Senator Clinton. THE ECONOMIST did point out one clear drawback to the reoccupation of the White House by the Clintons: another four or eight years of partisan carping here in the USA, not merely because the legions of Clinton-haters will come out of the woodwork, but also because the Clintons carry along with them their own shrill cultural warriors.
* Oil prices were climbing steadily through the month towards the magic hundred dollars per barrel price -- though one reason being just that the dollar was softening. Oddly, prices at the pump in the USA haven't jumped up as quick, possibly because the oil industry fears being accused of profiteering. Some welcome the notion of oil at such high prices, since it will help push people to get more serious about alternative fuels.
* Nicholas Sarkozy visited Washington DC and got the red carpet rolled out for him by the White House and Congress. After so much sniping between the US and France, I think they all found a friendly French president as a relief. I do myself, I must admit to be a Sarko fan, I find him charismatic. Of course, being too friendly with George W. Bush, whose national and international popularity ratings are on the low side, has its risks. As BBC WORLD pointed, the French do have a word for "poodle".
Back home, Sarkozy was enduring a wave of public-worker strikes, targeting his drive to reform work practices. The French public has been traditionally sympathetic to strikes and street demonstrations, but over the last few years dissatisfaction with the status quo has been growing. THE ECONOMIST pointed out some time back that circumstances in France seem only too reminiscent of Britain in the late pre-Thatcher 1970s, when everything seemed to be grinding to a halt, with all transport shut down and uncollected garbage bags piling up along the streets. The strikes were followed up by violent demonstrations. Sarkozy made it clear that the government wasn't going to back down, that the days when street demonstrations inevitably derailed the slightest attempts at reform were over. It appears he has support in this: BBC chats with French citizens on the street seemed to indicate an "enough is enough" attitude.
* In the "world as a cartoon" category for November, King Juan Carlos of Spain acquired a bit of notoriety when he attended a Latin American conference where Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez was noisily denouncing high Spanish officials, calling them fascists and lower than snakes. The king told Chavez: "Why don't you shut up?!" This undiplomatic if understandable remark was then picked up as ringtone and has proven popular for downloads in Venezuela and elsewhere. In order to avoid intellectual (?) property conflicts, an actor impersonated the king's voice to create the ringtone.
In news with a similarly absurd tone, the Australians had general elections this month, pitting incumbent prime minister John Howard's Liberal Party against challenger Kevin Rudd's Labor Party. At the very last moments before the citizens went to the polls, locals in one district were handed leaflets from the "Islamic Australia Federation" that praised Labor's sympathy for the terrorists who had conducted bombings of nightclubs in Bali in 2002 that killed more than 200, many of them Australians. The leaflet read: "We gratefully acknowledge Labor's support to forgive our Muslim brothers who have been unjustly sentenced to death for the Bali bombings." It also thanked Labor for supporting the construction of new mosques in Australia and for their sympathy with controversial Australian Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali, who infamously compared scantily-clad women to uncovered meat.
Two Liberal Party activists turned out to be behind the fliers. Howard promptly denounced the prank, as well he might since no politician with any sense would have pulled such a dumb stunt. It appears to have been thought up under the influence of alcohol but alas, it was carried out sober. The accused activists were photographed trying to cover their faces. The Liberals lost the vote, though the fliers don't appear to have had much to do with it -- the Liberals were already trailing in the polls.BACK_TO_TOP
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: An article in IEEE SPECTRUM discussed how a Dutch company named "e-Traction" built two hybrid diesel-electric buses that had the electric motors in the wheels themselves. Only two wheels were powered, with each motor burning 40 kilowatts each; according to company officials, with a more conventional electric drive system about 20% of the power is wasted, but with the direct-drive system, almost all the power reaches the road.
The scheme also permits more efficient regenerative braking and even, through independent power to the wheels, better antiskid braking. The bus is fitted with a lithium battery pack that allows it to operate for an hour without use of the diesel generator system. The bus costs about twice as much as a conventional bus, but has two to four times better fuel economy, much lower emissions, and can pay itself off in a reasonable timeframe. The company is working on smaller wheel drive motors for autos, but officials admit that the pay-back is much more arguable. However, they still believe that future hybrids will likely have a wheel-drive configuration.
* Anybody who was a space enthusiast in the 1970s finds the concept of the "space solar power satellite (SSPS)" as reminiscent of the decade as polyester, platform shoes, and disco fever. The idea of placing a huge solar power plant in geostationary orbit and beaming the power down to Earth was definitely cool, but even many of those advocating the idea admitted that it was unlikely it would be practical any time soon. However, the US Department of Defense's National Security Space Office (NSSO) has issued a report that suggests small-scale SSPS would be a useful military asset, with three geostationary SSPS complexes giving forces in the field "power on demand" any place on Earth. Since modern military forces use a good deal of electronics, they are dependent on towing a fleet of generators around and keeping them fueled, which gets to be considerable expense and effort. The NSSO report also suggests that a military SSPS program could be a "seed" for a full-blown civil program.
* The entirely inefficient and short-lived incandescent light bulb is on the way out, being replaced by fluorescents and LEDs. As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Everlasting Light", 8 September 2007), there are other potential replacements emerging from the wings. Researchers at Ceravision in the UK have come up with a way to produce bright light efficiently, using a block of aluminum oxide with a hole drilled in it and bathed with microwaves from a magnetron or other cheap microwave source. The microwaves generate a strong electric field inside the hole; if a capsule containing one of several types of gases is plugged inside the hole, the gases are ionized and emit light. Different colors of light can be selected using different types of gases.
The Ceravision device has conversion efficiencies better than 50%, and since it has no fragile filament, it promises to be long-lived. It also generates light from a point source, allowing it to be used to drive projection displays. The light itself its compact and cheap; it does require a magnetron or similar microwave generator, but one magnetron can be used to drive multiple lamps.BACK_TO_TOP
* YOGURT BIOTECH: Several articles in these pages have discussed how microorganisms, regarded by most of the public as nasty and suspicious, actually can prove to be surprisingly friendly. Just how surprising was revealed in a BUSINESS WEEK article on Paris-based Groupe Danone ("How Danone Turns Bacteria Into Bucks" by Carol Matlack, 26 November 2007). For example, consider Danone's Activa yogurt, which is promoted as an aid to regularity. Its magic ingredient? A bacteria named Bifidus animalis DN-17310 -- which helped bring in $2 billion USD of revenue to the company in 2006.
Danone did not stumble onto this magic beast by any means. Danone's bacterial research center, in the countryside southwest of Paris, is effectively built around a collection of 3,500 frozen bacterial cultures. The company has been building the collection since the 1950s, when Danone started bringing back samples of dairy products after trips abroad, swapping them with university labs. The goal, of course, was to produce tastier yogurt. It took some time and improved biotech for Danone to make really effective use of the collection, however. The Bifidus bacterium had been stocked for over a decade before anyone noticed it had some interesting properties. These days, the center employs a hundred researchers, using the latest tech, such as gene-sequencing systems that can map out a bacterial genome in three days.
Bifidus has proven one of the big stars in Danone's stable, but the company has other potential winners. Lactobacillus casei DN-114001, for example, seems to be able to boost the immune system, and has been recently introduced to the market through a drink known as "DanActive". The company has also introduced a drinkable yogurt named "Essensis" that is promoted as improving skin condition, and is tinkering with bacterial products to reduce inflammation and fight obesity. The company is very careful to perform clinical trials along the lines of those used for drugs and vaccines to validate health claims -- for example, the company conducted a six-month trial of immunity-boosting yogurt with 4,000 test subjects in 150 countries. The European Union has increasingly strict rules for health claims of food products and Danone wants to be able to back up their ads.
Danone's effort in developing "probiotic" products -- that is, products based on benign bacteria -- is logical, since the company can charge twice as much as it does for ordinary yogurt. That's one of the main reasons Danone is outpacing the competition in its field. There have been some obstacles to overcome in the effort; one executive of Danone's USA branch recalls a retailer asking: "Are you really sure you want to put small cups with billions of bacteria on our food shelves?" -- failing to realize that describes ordinary yogurt as well. Danone, however, learned from the incident and made sure their ad campaign was carefully phrased.BACK_TO_TOP
* DCSNET: An article from WIRED.com ("Point, Click ... Eavesdrop: How the FBI Wiretap Net Operates" by Ryan Singel) took a closeup of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) interactive surveillance system, the "Digital Collection System Network (DCSNet)". DCSNet is effectively a "system of systems" that can intercept hardwired phones, cellphones, cellphone text messages, and much else with the click of a mouse.
DCSNet links into networking centers for traditional telephone networks, cellphone networks, and internet telephony providers. It includes at least three main elements:
DCSNet records all data digitally. FBI agents can play back conversations as they are happening, create master wiretap archives, pass the conversations on to translators, track the movements of a cellphone user from cellphone tower records, and relay intercepts to mobile vans. The FBI wiretapping system includes nodes in field offices and undercover locations all over the USA, connected by a private, encrypted communications backbone not linked to the internet. Sprint runs the system under government contract.
Using DCSNet, an FBI agent in New York could use a few clicks of a mouse to set up a wiretap on a cellphone in Sacramento, California, obtaining the cellphone's location immediately and then tracking all activity. All of it is recorded, to be passed on as needed to the appropriate experts, as well as stored in a master "Telephone Applications Database", with broad statistical analysis performed on its entries to seek out patterns.
DCSNet's origins were back in the Clinton Administration. In the 1990s, law enforcement began to complain to Congress that digital communications technology was making their jobs harder, and in response, in 1994 Congress passed the "Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)", which mandated that US communications service providers install "backdoors" in their switching centers. Once upon a time, after the FBI obtained a wiretap order, agents would have to contact the phone company and have the wiretap set up. Now all that happens is that the provider is relayed the order, it's reviewed by legal counsel to see if it's legitimate, and the provider enables the wiretaps as requested.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation requested documents on the system under the Freedom of Information Act, and successfully sued the Justice Department in 2006 to get access to the information on DCSNet. Even without the specifics, privacy advocates have been complaining about CALEA design mandates for some time, but the authorities haven't paid much mind. When "voice over internet" became a commercial reality, the law was expanded without hesitation to cover VOIP providers.
The convenience of DCSNet literally comes at a price. In the old days, the government had to pay about $250 USD for a month-long wiretap -- it is, after all, a service provided by a commercial firm to the government. Now it's about $2,200 USD. A typical wiretap order costs about $67,000 USD. Setting up the infrastructure to support DCSNet is of course expensive, with the FBI spending about half a billion USD -- and not all hardwired switches are compliant still. There's also the cost of enhancing DCSNet to keep up with the latest technology.
Along with the worries about government intrusion, the hooks in the communications network needed to support DCSNet open the door to the possibility of malicious hacking. A hacker managed to get into a similar phone network in Greece, though there's no evidence it's happened with DCSNet -- yet.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (8): I didn't really lose more than about 20 minutes by getting lost in Orlando, and made it to Sea World pretty much on schedule that afternoon. The first thing I picked up was the WILD ARCTIC simulation ride, which sends the audience on a flight in a supercopter over wintry terrain. It was OK, nothing memorable. It did open up into an indoors polar bear enclosure, which was more interesting.
However, the next attraction I visited, the BLUE HORIZONS dolphin show, turned out to be a complete surprise: a Vegas-style act, with trapeze and bungee performers plus high divers operating from a steel arch with platforms over a stage, integrated with displays by dolphins and false killer whales -- black creatures the size of very big dolphins. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative and they had to cancel the performance halfway through due to the danger to the performers of lightning strikes. They suggested coming back for the next performance and I was certain I would do so.
Sea World is more of an aquarium than a theme park, but I did have visit the KRAKEN roller-coaster, said to be the tallest in the US Southeast. It was quite the ride; I did skip the JOURNEY TO ATLANTIS flume ride, since apparently one gets completely soaked -- the ride might be fun, but walking around damp and squishy for the rest of the day was out of the question. Incidentally, as I was wandering around I suddenly felt massively overdressed -- everybody was in shorts, tees, and sandals, while I was in pressed khaki pants, a touristy sports shirt, and shiny black leather sports shoes. It was the first time in my life that I'd ever felt like a fashion statement, even in such casual clothes; it was actually kind of impractical wear for the water rides, but since I was carrying a camera I would have been reluctant to get soaked in any case.
Also incidentally, it was my pocket Canon Powershot, and I was carrying it in a belt case, so I could ride roller-coasters and the like without being told to put it in a locker. Gate security would ask me to unzip the pouch and show the camera, and I got to the point where I would do so even before being asked. As far as ensuring that I didn't lose other loose items, before I left Loveland I had gone to a military surplus store and bought a small soft ammunition pouch with a snap-shut flap; I would put my wallet and keys and whatever in it and then stuff it into my pocket. Originally I had tied an old shoestring through its back in a loop to allow me to secure it to my belt, but that proved to be a nuisance, and I finally got rid of the string. I realized that if I was ever in a situation where I was pulling enough gees to yank the thing out of my pocket, I would be in trouble.
In any case, there were plenty of other attractions to see. The JEWELS OF THE SEA aquarium, though not large, had some fascinating exhibits, including one of sea dragons -- seahorses that look just like a clump of kelp -- and comb jellies, which are jellyfish that look like little bells and move around using small rows of cilia on the sides. There was also a fish tank under a glass floor, which was definitely a spiffy attraction. Other exhibits included:
One of the interesting features of the sea lion pool was that the area was heavily populated with egrets. I asked one of the staff about them, observing that there were clearly two species -- she told me the small ones were snowy egrets, the large ones were cattle egrets. There were also a few wood storks in attendance. The birds weren't part of the attraction as such, they were local to the area and were after table scraps. The egrets were almost tame enough to grab onto, and the staff member told me there were cases where rowdy visitors had injured them. I wouldn't have hassled them myself, not just because it would have been inconsiderate but because I might have got a sharp beak speared into my eye; they're not defenseless. It was interesting to find birds that would have been considered exotic elsewhere being as common as crows -- ibises were also common in the area.
I did manage to catch the next performance of BLUE HORIZONS, and it went to completion without interruption. I got some spectacular pix, some of which I was astounded actually worked out, freezing the performers in the middle of some impressive stunt. Incidentally, the dolphins and false killer whales were very well trained, contributing to the choreography precisely on cue -- for example, splashing the front rows of the audience on command and in coordination. (The front rows are designated the "splash zone" and those who sit there are warned they will get wet.) I particularly enjoyed the two bungee performers -- they bounced up and down on bungee harnesses suspended from the arch, spinning neatly head over heels in coordination; I noticed them glancing at each other every now and then to make sure they were in synch.
The final attraction was the BELIEVE killer-whale show -- there was no way I was going to visit Sea World and not see the killer whales. They were impressive in themselves -- I got a great snap of a handler standing on nose of a killer whale as it shot up out of the water -- but compared to BLUE HORIZONS, as a theatrical production it was a dud. They tried to liven up the show with a huge moving video display, the show being based on a theme of "BELIEVE in your dreams", but though it might have been OK for kids I found it hokey and overdone -- there's a British slang term, "twee", that seemed to fit it.
In the end it was still a very productive day, the attractions at Sea World Orlando being definitely worth the price of admission. On top of that, the ambiance is very pleasant, low key compared to the other theme parks in the region, with nice landscaping and gardening. The only difficulty was that it was laid out in a very convoluted and confusing way that made it very easy to get turned around.
On the way back to the hotel I dropped by the Walmart to get a new watch. While I was there I bought a new flash-ROM drive as well. While traveling, I sort through my pix on my laptop and then put them on a flash-ROM drive that I wear around my neck. That way, if I lose everything else -- my laptop gets stolen or dies -- I won't have lost the trip as well. Anyway, I had a 1 GB drive and it was getting filled up too fast, so I bought a 2 GB drive to make sure I didn't overflow. In the end, I would end up wearing both of them.
Incidentally, although the Walmart wasn't far from my hotel as the crow flies, it wasn't close as far as the roads were concerned since access across I-4 is limited in the International Drive area. International Drive is essentially bounded by the Universal Studios theme park complex in the east and the Orlando Convention Center and Sea World in the west; there's freeway access at either end, but there's only one locale between where it's possible to access or cross the freeway. The resort areas are generally to the west of this access point, while the area to the east is mostly populated by fast-food joints and the like. To get to the Walmart I had to drive west from the resort area, cross the freeway, and drive east again. There was clearly a method in the madness of the layout of the area, but I wasn't exactly certain of what it was. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (1): Chapter 10 of Brian Hayes' INFRASTRUCTURE deals with bridges and tunnels. There are over a half million highway bridges in the USA, as well as about 100,000 railroad bridges. We tend to think of bridges in terms of the spectacular items such as the Golden Gate bridge, but the typical bridge is much more mundane. Likely the most common bridge is the highway overpass -- a simple "girder bridge", with a roadbed standing on a series of posts. The roadbed of the bridge is structured around a set of beams or "stringers" -- usually steel I-beams but sometimes concrete I-beams or box beams -- and with beams or planking laid across. The posts are usually reinforced concrete and are called "piers". Girder bridges for trains are, not surprisingly, generally more robust than those for automobile traffic.
All the loads in a girder bridge are transmitted straight down, and the structure is said to be "statically stable" -- in normal operation it is not subjected to loads that could make it tip over. It can be affected by moving or "live" loads due to traffic, wind, or earthquakes. Live loads could cause the bridge to tip along its length, with the piers falling over like a row of dominoes, a procedure called "racking". Usually a highway bridge is framed on its end by big abutments, making it impossible to tip over in this way. Some tall girder bridges may have diagonal bracing as well. Girder bridges are mundane as large constructions go, but they are still custom built, and some are more tidily designed than others. However, they are so simple that they are rarely eyesores, either.
* The problem with a girder bridge is that, as the span between supports increases, the sag forces in the middle of the span increase and threaten to cause its collapse. It may not be practical to increase the number of supports, so the only alternative is to reinforce the span in some way.
The most conceptually simple way is to use a "truss" structure, based on triangular cross-bracing, to transmit the loads back across the span. A truss bridge can be implemented in wood, but the idea didn't really catch on until the development of low-cost steel production, permitting the construction of large steel truss bridges. A variety of truss styles is available:
Trusses can be arranged on top of or on the bottom of the roadway. If the truss is under the roadway, it's called a "deck truss", while if it's on top of the roadway it's a "through truss", because traffic drives through it. The through truss may or may not have cross-bracing between the two sides; if it doesn't, it's called a "pony truss". [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* WATCH OUT FOR THAT MOOSE: There are some animals -- mice, rats, deer, and coyotes -- that seem to get along pretty well with humans. As discussed in an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Bears & Moose On The Loose", 1 October 2007), moose are not on that list. As urban sprawl intrudes into wilderness, collisions between moose and cars are on the increase. In Nova Scotia, there were so many collisions with moose on one stretch of road over five years, resulting in 500 injuries and 20 deaths -- moose are big, hitting one is not necessarily just a fender-bender -- that the authorities fenced it off.
There's at least 700 collisions with moose every year in Alaska, possibly more because drivers don't want to report minor accidents lest they end up with higher insurance rates. Alaskan trains had a bad reputation as "moose goosers" for a while, but that situation has improved since the railroads began clearing the vegetation well away from train tracks. Sometimes a pilot car goes ahead to warn off the moose. Moose are even a hazard to dog-sled racing, since they don't like dogs and will charge them.
Moose are a particular problem in the winter since they don't hibernate, and since they find it easier to walk on a cleared road, that means a greater likelihood of problems with traffic, all the more so because drivers can't stop on icy roads as easily. Moose also have an increasing tendency to show up in odd places -- for example, one moose decided to wander through a shopping mall in upstate New York. It's an ill wind that blows nobody good, and in some states the authorities have programs to hand off roadkill moose to citizens who have signed up on a list. The moose carcasses have to be disposed of, after all, and they might as well not go to waste.
* Bears are another big animal that have problems with humans. In some ways, they find humans too convenient, since a bear will eat almost anything and find any food left available by humans perfectly tasty. Bears frequent trash dumpsters and even outdoor fish markets. Traditionally, bears that have become a dangerous nuisance are tranquilized and taken someplace out of the way, but even in Alaska it's increasingly hard to find anyplace completely "out of the way". That means the only thing left to do is kill them.
In Fairbanks, Alaska, a record 11 grizzlies were shot in 2007, while ten black bears and three grizzlies have been gunned down in Anchorage. The Anchorage authorities are not happy with the situation and fine citizens who don't secure their household trash containers and allow a bear to rummage through them; the fines are likely to soon rise from $100 USD to $300 USD. Anchorage residents can rent a rummage-proof trash container for $5 USD a month.
ED: While in Spokane one time the news had, as seems to often happen in Spokane, a bizarre story, of a young bull moose who had wandered into a local back yard and got his antlers tangled up in a kiddy swing set. Animal control got him loose and he wandered back into the woods. Funny, I'd never even heard of moose in the local area before.BACK_TO_TOP
* CRUISING THE GEOWEB: The idea of having world maps online has been around for a fair amount of time, but as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("The World On Your Desktop", 8 September 2007), in the last few years the concept has taken flight -- thanks to the introduction on the web of Google Earth and similar global mapping systems that create an online "geoweb". Google Earth allows a user to search the entire surface of the Earth, providing maps that can be overlaid with legal boundaries, elevation data, even the locations of coffee shops. It also allows inserting photographic imagery covering about a third of the Earth's land area, rendered in sufficient detail to make out the landscaping of the backyard of a house.
The first commercial "geobrowser" was introduced by the US firm Keyhole in 2001. Google bought up Keyhole in 2004 and used the firm's technology to launch Google Earth in 2005. Google Earth uses a downloaded utility, run on a user's computer and accessing data from the internet; Google also operates Google Maps, which uses a standard web browser to display map data.
Google has competition in this field, most prominently Microsoft, which bought up GeoTango in 2005 to help Microsoft create Microsoft's web-based Live Search Maps. Officials involved with Live Search Maps say it's cost a couple of hundred million dollars so far, with most of the money spent on satellite imagery -- currently running to 14 petabytes, or 14 million gigabytes, on 900 servers. Microsoft is now adding 3D models of cities, at the rate of about ten a month. Google is trying to fight back using "crowdsourcing", along the lines of Wikipedia contributions, obtaining users to provide images, 3D models, and other data, with hundreds of thousands of contributors so far.
While to many the geoweb is just a fun toy, it definitely has serious uses. Google Earth was used to help coordinate relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tax inspectors in Buenos Aires to check the size of taxpayer properties. An Italian programmer checking out his home town found odd landscape features that turned out to be the remains of a lost Roman villa. Roofers, landscape gardeners, and solar-panels sales companies have used the geoweb to hunt for prospective customers. And the Amazon Conservation Team equipped 26 Amazon tribes with GPS receivers along with PCs to run Google Earth, so they could legally fight encroachments on their land from loggers and miners.
The geoweb is still in its early stages of development. The big excitement in the geoweb community right now is the combination of data in what are called "mashups", merging useful data with maps. One early example of a mashup, "housingmaps.com", linked San Francisco apartment listings from Craigslist.org with Google Maps. The property business is obviously interested in mashups, but they have other uses, for example mapping out local gas prices. Google has recently added features to Google Maps to make mashups easier to construct, and Microsoft is working on similar tools.
As the geoweb is shaping up now, one online system provides the basic maps while a variety of other servers provide specialized information -- seismic data, traffic jams, whatever -- with the different sources integrated by a user's geobrowser. This is following in the path of the fancy "geographic information systems (GIS)" that have been around for a decade or two; the geoweb is nowhere near as sophisticated as a professional GIS, but it's nowhere near as expensive, either. Although the geoweb is increasingly adding features and capabilities similar to those found in a GIS, the flow goes the other way as well, with the latest GIS products able to leverage off the geoweb to provide more capability at lower cost.
Of course, as with any high-tech, the geoweb has its hazards. Terrorists could use a geobrowser to help plan attacks, and it seems that insurgents in Iraq have used it for that purpose. Both Google and Microsoft are responsive to security concerns, but they don't spend too much time censoring their image base since the image providers generally do this as a normal procedure. Besides, the images are almost always months old at least, which limits their usefulness to terrorists who have no idea if new security has been set up since the last image was taken -- and may be walking into a trap. While private citizens might find it fun to look over a submarine base, it really doesn't amount to much of a security breach, since governments have access to much better and more current imagery of what the "other side" is up to, and they're long used to concealing their own secret stuff from spy satellites anyway. The US military is still a big user of geoweb systems, not so much to provide a spy capability as to provide valid maps, always an issue with military operations.
One emerging geoweb technology that promises to cause trouble is the integration of webcam and similar technology, creating a massive potential for intrusive snooping. There have already been privacy concerns over the geoweb, with Hollywood stars protesting the availability of imagery of their homes to anyone interested. Visionaries believe that these issues are manageable and that the benefits far outweigh the liabilities. They see a geoweb populated with smart agents, integrated with virtual worlds and avatars -- linked to GPS receivers on cars and other vehicles to make the system increasingly real-time and highly interactive.
There are two problems to overcome. First, the only way to make money on the consumer geoweb right now is advertising, and given the expense, it doesn't make ends meet. Google typically has decided to try to dominate the technology and worry about making money later. Second, there's a lack of standards, hobbling growth. Google has submitted KML, its proprietary tagging language for describing the placement of objects in the Google Earth, to the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards body; the OGC has already approved a standard for GML, which defines spatial information models. Other standards, covering topics such as 3D modeling of buildings and formats for seismic and other data, are in the works. Those involved in the geoweb believe we've hardly scratched the surface of what might be achieved.BACK_TO_TOP
* RED TAPE OBSTACLE COURSE: Regulation is one of the characteristics of any society that hasn't collapsed into chaos, and though few fail to recognize the necessity for some level of regulations, it still remains a dirty word, particularly in the USA. THE ECONOMIST'S American columnist, Lexington, took a closer look at regulation in the 27 October issue in an column titled "Of Horses' Teeth & Liberty".
It seems that horses, which have to chew on tough grasses in the wild, have teeth that never quite stop growing to compensate for being ground down. Domesticated horses don't generally subsist on such tough fare and their teeth can keep right on growing until they inflict pain and discomfort on the horse. The trick is to file the teeth down, a technique known as "floating". It's something of an unusual skill, usually found among hardcore horse breeders. Currently, a group of Texan horse floaters is engaged in a legal battle with the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, which insists that only a licensed vet can put a file into a horse's mouth. That means that horse floaters could only practice their trade if they get a veterinary degree. Oddly, it seems the practice is not generally taught in veterinary schools. The board says they get complaints from citizens whose horses were injured by inept floaters, but the floaters involved in the confrontation have lots of experience and few complaints about their work.
The floaters are being backed by a group called the Institute for Justice, which helps fight restrictive regulations. Such regulations are generally implemented in the name of protecting consumers, but the reality is that they are usually the work of vested interests trying to protect their turf. Four US states require interior designers to have a license; a number of others let anyone work at interior design, but forbid such practitioners to advertise themselves as such unless they take a state exam. The only people pushing the regulations are established interior designers.
Since people rarely organize to fight regulations, the rules are often pushed through without resistance. The institute helped strike down a Minnesota rule in which the state board of barbers and cosmetologists banned African hair-braiders from practicing their work unless they took 1,500 hours of irrelevant training. The White House's Office of Management & Budget (OMB) claims that the benefits of regulation far outweigh their costs. Between 1996 and 2006, according to OMB, the cost of the main Federal regulations was estimated to be from $40 billion to $46 billion USD, while the benefits were estimated to be in the range of $99 billion and $484 billion USD. However, critics have pointed out that all the OMB did was take the estimates handed to the office by the various agencies in charge of the rules, with no attempt to determine if that's how things work in practice. One conservative think-tank puts the cost at $1.1 trillion USD a year. That may be a pessimistic assessment, but the US Small Business Administration says that the cost of complying with Federal regulations costs US small businesses $7,600 USD per year.
Not only are the costs and benefits unclear, it's even unclear if the burden of regulation in the USA is growing or shrinking. There has been considerable deregulation of a range of industries, particularly airlines and banking, since the 1970s. However, new regulations have been added, in particular relative to health, safety, the environment, and national security. Few doubt that some of the regulations are necessary; few believe that all of them are.
One major problem with attempts to pin down the details and effects of regulations is the fact that politicians tend to ignore such analyses. Of course they do: few mainstream politicians dare to sound soft on terrorism, or callous about health care and the environment -- all the more so because their political enemies are quick to exploit their voting records for offenses, real or imaginary, against the will of the people. The associated problem is that those pushing regulations are usually a small interested group that has a strong motive to do so; the impact of the regulations is spread out over a wide population that doesn't have a strong motive to fight back. The idea of operations like the Institute for Justice, set up to keep an eye on what the regulators are up to, clearly has its attraction.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (7): I woke up on the morning of Tuesday, 17 September, and tried to put on my watch, only to find the band broken. Hmm? It had been OK when I took it off, I must have broken it when I did so. Oh well, not a problem to get another one, I do every few years and it was about time.
I had originally planned to go to Disney World on Tuesday, with visits to Kennedy Space Center and Sea World Orlando on Wednesday. However, there was no particular reason I couldn't reverse days, and I figured I might as well get what I regarded as "marginal" attractions out of the way first. I left the hotel and cruised off south down International Drive, looking for a McDonald's to eat breakfast.
It was an interesting drive down the street, since the amount of money poured into the development was apparent. The organization of the International Drive area is unusual -- the street is divided by a wide, well-landscaped median, with U-turn access between the two sides of the street at intervals. The hotels and restaurants were organized into various small "resort complexes", with a hotel or two supported by a few restaurants. The Orlando Convention Center was at the south end of the drive, and it was particularly impressive cluster of buildings. They had oversized statuary of two cougars in relaxation as "gate guards" and I had to get shots of them.
There was a McDonald's nearby, and I picked up a bite to eat before taking off east to Kennedy Space Center. It was a little over an hour's drive -- it was a bit confusing but my navigation held and I had no problems. I wasn't really expecting too much of the KSC Visitor's Center, my intent being mostly to get pictures of the rocket park, and as it turned out my expectations were appropriate. The attractions were theme-parkish, somewhat kiddie-oriented; I did get worthwhile shots of the rockets in the rocket park and of a Soyuz capsule in one exhibit, but otherwise there was not much of interest to me there. At least the humidity was tolerable -- it was just as warm as on Monday, but not as sticky, and in fact the humidity would stay tolerable for the rest of my trip.
The most fun I had there was with the security guy, who noticed the old Army dogtag on my keyring -- which is a grenade pin ring, by the way -- and asked me when I'd been in; we traded a few service stories for a minute. They did have a KSC site bus tour, but that would keep me there for hours. It had a stop at the USAF Missile Museum, on the Air Force component of the site, but though I wanted to take that in I just couldn't spare the time. That was one of the harder calls to make on the trip planning, and in hindsight it was the wrong decision.
It was raining when I left and cruised back from the visitor's center, and in fact it would be intermittently cloudbursty all day. There was a small air museum, the "Valiant Air Museum", at nearby Titusville, and though it didn't look like much from the outside I shrugged and paid admission rather than pass up the possibility that it had some surprises. I like to give myself a generous budget on trips like this just to make sure I'm not inclined to turn down even marginal attractions: "I'm on a trip, I'm supposed to be blowing money away."
In fact, it wasn't much from the inside, either. It wasn't a disgusting "boneyard", being more of a restoration facility, with a lot of nice flight-condition aircraft crammed into a hangar in such a way that it was impossible to get good shots of them. At least they had a nice selection of aircraft engines along the walls. I got some good shots, particularly of a classic TF33 turbofan -- yes, there are people who actually care about such things -- so the admission wasn't a loss.
* Those items knocked off the list, I went back to Orlando to visit Sea World, and that's when I made my first real navigation blunder. I wanted to stop at a Subway and get a ham-&-cheese sandwich, and find a Walmart to get a new watch -- I'd been having to fish the broken one out of my pocket at intervals to check time, which was a nuisance. Once I reached Orlando, I got off the freeway, expecting to go into town by parallel arterials.
This scheme seemed to work at first, since I quickly found a Subway at a shopping mall and ate lunch. The area I stopped in was a recent development, an impressive complex of housing and facilities, with nice landscaping and ponds, speaking of a lot of investment. However, when I left to go further into town, in hopes of finding a Walmart, I ended up getting persistently sidetracked. As it turns out, Orlando is broken up by a large number of small lakes and ponds, and there are relatively few straight-though arterials.
I ended up getting turned 90 degrees and finding myself downtown -- no big deal, it was simple to get on I-4 to cruise west again, but it was embarrassing to get lost. Not only did I have plenty of past experience to suggest that squirreling around in strange towns blindly was a bad idea, I had even left my Orlando map at the hotel, which could have got me straight the instant I realize I was getting off track. Duh. At least I spotted a Walmart on the way west -- actually, it was only a stone's throw from my hotel, on the north side of I-4, part of a big new shopping complex. I made a note of it. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (13): Long-range passenger rail traffic is unusual but not completely extinct in North America. To give an idea of the small scale, a few thousand passenger cars are in operation, compared to over a million freight cars.
The basic technology for passenger rail is much the same as for freight carriage; passenger trains tend to have spiffier-looking locomotives, but it's all cosmetics, they're the same as a freight-hauler diesel-electric under the skin. The signaling system is the same as it is for freight haulage, though the rules are stricter. There are differences, however. One is that passengers are a very light load, with an entire train of passenger cars massing less than a single coal hopper. The passenger cars are also much more heavily shock-absorbed to make the ride smoother -- which is an easier task than it would be with a heavy freight car. In addition, the coupling is tighter, with safety features and less "slack" to make startups and slowdowns less jarring. Again, the lighter weight helps in this matter.
* One place where passenger rail has been making a comeback in the USA is in urban light rail. It's not a new idea; there were about 80,000 electric trolley cars in America in 1917, but the trolleys died out after World War II, being rendered obsolete by the automobile. Light rail has revived in dense urban environments where getting around in and parking a car is troublesome. The first modern North American light rail system was installed at Edmonton in Canada in 1978, with hundreds following since that time.
Light rail systems are small electric trains using overhead catenaries, operating off about 600 volts DC -- nobody wants to use high voltages in an urban environment. The driving motors are linked directly to the wheels, and it's not unusual to have a separate motor on each side, eliminating the fixed axles of cross-country trains. This reduces squealing, a nuisance in the big city for both passengers and bystanders, particularly since light rail has to negotiate more and sharper turns than cross-country rail. For this reason, the latest light rail cars are articulated, hinged in the center, with the joint covered by an accordion-like pleat. The joint is covered by a disk in the floor, which children seem to like to straddle.
Light rail uses regenerative braking, with the power actually fed back into the catenary to be used by another train. If another train isn't available to soak up the power, it's burned off using a set of big resistors. Final braking is performed by hydraulically or pneumatically actuated disc brakes. There's also an emergency brake system consisting of an electromagnetic assembly that gloms onto the track.
* There are specialized light-rail systems associated with particular locales, such as the Disneyland monorails and the shuttle system linking the terminals at the massive Denver International Airport. They tend to lend a modern gloss to rail, which is actually a fairly ancient technology -- once on the leading edge of innovation, now it is generally trailing well behind.
Indeed, the technology has stagnated to the extent that at one time there was a perception that trains were dying out, but trains are the most efficient means of bulk land transport and would be difficult to replace. Still, the amount of track in use in the USA is less than half that in service in the 1920s. The future of the railroads in the US remains a bit unclear: it would seem that an era of high energy costs would give them a boost, but cultural biases and uninspired management may keep the railroads in a state of slow decline. [END OF SET 9]START | PREV | NEXT
* CHINA CLONES: An article in POPULAR SCIENCE ("Clone Home" by Dan Koeppel", September 2007), toured the Chinese industrial cloning industry, showing that the Chinese are increasingly no longer content to just copy other people's products: they want to improve on them as well.
The author's lead-in to the subject was the Meizu "miniOne", a mobile phone based on the Apple iPhone. Although it was difficult to tell from an iPhone externally, according to promotional literature, it would be able to run popular non-Apple software, and would be compatible with different cellphone networks around the world. It would also cost half as much as an iPhone. The author traveled to visit the Hong Kong Electronics Fair to get more details, but alas promises that he would be able to meet with Meizu company officials didn't pan out -- it seems that they were forced to take a low profile because of legal challenges.
The trip wasn't wasted, however, since it gave the author a chance to survey the Chinese cloning industry in general. In Beijing, the streets were clogged by foreign car designs -- but not all of them had the badges of foreign cars. The most common car was the Chery "QQ", a tiny subcompact with a pricetag on the order of about $5,000 USD, making it affordable to a typical middle-class Chinese family. In fact, the Chery QQ is a complete clone of a vehicle known either as the Chevy "Spark" or the Daewoo "Matiz", having been designed as a GM-Daewoo collaboration for worldwide sales. A high-end version is sold in the USA as the "Aveo".
The QQ is a very close copy of the Spark / Matiz -- parts can be pulled off one and fitted to the other. It appeared in 2003 and represented a certain maturity in Chinese industry. Early 1980s efforts to copy foreign products were low-tech, such as copies of Mickey-Mouse tee shirts. By the early 1990s the Chinese were copying Nike and Reebok shoes; by the middle of the decade they were cloning Duracell batteries and DVDs; by the end of the decade they were beginning to take on sophisticated products, such as Bosch power tools. Although other developing nations, such as Japan and South Korea, went through a similar learning curve, the Chinese have done it with extreme speed.
One reason that the Chinese were able to catch up so fast was because so many foreign manufacturers were outsourcing their production to Chinese factories. With a factory tooled up to produce a particular product, it was not all that difficult to run a "ghost shift", producing clones of the same or similar product at night. Sometimes the clones were made of inferior materials, sometimes they were entirely identical to the real thing. This scheme going well, in the mid-1990s the Chinese started cloning entire factories set up for legitimate manufacturers, creating a factory identical to the original that could churn out clones continuously.
Manufacturers gradually got wise to such games and began to control outsourcing of critical product subsystems -- building them at home and only outsourcing noncritical subassemblies to China. However, some manufacturers who had never outsourced to China also found out their products were being cloned by Chinese factories -- for example, Faria Corporation, a builder of dashboard gauges for boats and vehicles, discovered inferior clones of their products all over the world, complete with Faria Corporation labels.
In 2005, Samsung Corporation of South Korea got fed up with Chinese clones of Samsung cellphones and began a detailed investigation to trace the clones down to their sources. The investigation uncovered a well-organized cloning industry. A cloner company sets up an intelligence-gathering team that tracks down all information possible about an upcoming product, sometimes going to trade shows to take picture after picture of a sample until someone tells them to get lost. They stand in lines to make sure they are the first to buy the product, and then hand it over to a well-staffed hardware engineering team that reverse-engineers it. While the hardware is being reverse-engineered, a software team works on software to duplicate the functions of the product, using off-the-shelf code whenever possible; Linux-based operating systems are particularly popular.
The lead time from beginning the clone operation to rolling out product is about eight weeks. Samsung officials were so impressed by the skill of the Chinese cloners that the company tried to hire them, but the cloners were making too much money ripping off Samsung and others to be tempted. Now all Samsung can do is delay release of new products in China in hopes of slowing down the cloners.
Nippon Electric Corporation (NEC) of Japan began a similar investigation in 2006 after getting many customer complaints about NEC gear -- DVD players, cellphones, MP3 players, and so on -- that it turned out the company had never actually produced. A private security firm named International Risk was hired by NEC to figure out what was going on, and uncovered what amounted to a clone of NEC operating in China, complete with a "shadow" NEC headquarters linked to 50 manufacturing facilities. The offices of the fake NEC had NEC illuminated signs, while the officials had NEC business cards and email addresses; they even had the nerve to charge NEC royalties to some of the manufacturing firms working with the network. The organization was raided in 2007, but the ringleaders disappeared. The factories are still in operation, though they don't use the NEC label any longer.
The biggest problem with cloning is, has always been, safety. A German safety group compared the Spark / Matiz with the QQ and found the QQ's crash-worthiness far inferior. Chinese clones became infamous in 2007 when it was found that some toothpastes had been produced in China in which glycerin, a sweetener, was replaced by diethylene glycol -- a dangerously toxic component of antifreeze, well-known to poisoners because it has a deceptively sweet taste. Dozens of people were killed by the bogus toothpaste.
Chinese government crackdowns on cloners have been sporadic and inconsistent, and no wonder, since in many cases the ripoffs have been conducted with the collaboration of corrupt government officials. However, Chinese leadership is conscious of the nation's international image, and patience with the corruption is running low. The former head of China's Food & Drug Administration was executed in 2007 for taking bribes and approving a counterfeit antibiotic that killed ten people.
The real solution to the clone problem is for Chinese industry to produce products that can compete head-to-head with everyone else's without cheating. That's where the real money is, after all, and the Chinese are moving rapidly towards this goal. Chery is working with foreign car makers to build better models for sale at home and on the export market. While cloners are ripping off the iPhone with cheap copies, other companies are trying to design comparable products with their own distinct features that can compete on a level basis as far as feature set goes -- and better than level on price. Those who can remember when the label MADE IN JAPAN meant "junk" can also remember that the transition to the modern Japanese reputation for quality goods in the 1960s was abrupt. It shouldn't be too surprising if the label MADE IN CHINA undergoes a similar change in public perception in the not-too-distant future.BACK_TO_TOP
* SUPER PLATFORMS: Offshore oil drilling platforms are marvels of technology, but they are also expensive. As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Sea Change", 8 September 2007), a British North Sea oil platform can have a staff of up to 300 people, but the actual payroll for the platform is twice that, since the staff work on a "two weeks on / three weeks off" schedule. The heliport at Aberdeen is one of the busiest in the world as it ferries personnel back and forth; food and other supplies have to be hauled in by boat; electric generators and desalinators work around the clock; and a vessel is on standby at all times to withdraw the staff in an emergency. An offshore oil platform is one of the most expensive ways to produce oil, and not surprisingly the oil companies are looking for ways to reduce the costs.
One approach is to cut personnel -- as it turns out, on examination there's areas where automation can reduce the number of staff, and some jobs turned out to be not all that necessary anyway. There has been a push to "onshore" staff, with platforms connected to land-based facilities by high-bandwidth fiber-optic links -- though this has not always proven as workable as it seems on paper. However, there have still been considerable reductions in staff.
Another improvement is to use one platform to tap multiple fields using sideways drilling, a scheme also used in land-based oil production -- sometimes, it is thought, to steal oil from across a national border. Exxon Mobil holds the current record for a sideways drill of 11 kilometers (7 miles). Yet another scheme that further extends the reach of a platform is to set up a wellhead on the sea floor that's linked to the oil platform by a pipeline. In such a "tie-back" scheme, the valves on the wellhead are activated by remote control. With such dispersal schemes, offshore oil drillers have been able to greatly extend the life of fields once thought nearing depletion.
Of course, the notion of a tie-back suggest that it might be possible to just get rid of the platforms completely and connected a sea-floor wellhead to a shore facility with a pipeline. This is done to an extent in Norwegian offshore gas fields, but only when the well has enough pressure to drive the gas back through the pipeline. Underwater compressor systems are now under development to extend the such pipelines, and some believe that by the 2020s the oil platform will be obsolete. Or maybe not: the world's thirst for energy is so great that platforms may be sited too far offshore for a pipeline, with oil or liquefied gas hauled off by tanker.BACK_TO_TOP
* DANGER KEEP OUT: The main problem with nuclear power is that the radioactive wastes produced have to be sequestered for millennia before they decay to the level of background radiation. The best option seems to be to bury the wastes in deep underground facilities in geologically stable locations. The US and Finland have chosen sites; other nations are still looking around.
As discussed in a short article on ECONOMIST.com, along with the problem of making sure that the wastes don't leak out of the storage facilities, there is also the issue of making sure somebody doesn't break into a facility without realizing how dangerous it is. This is not a trivial issue, since whatever warning signs are set up, they will have to last 10,000 years and make their meaning plain for all that time. For comparison, the pyramids of Egypt are only about 5,000 years old. In the 1990s, the US Department of Energy (DOE) put together a team of linguists, archaeologists, and materials scientists to examine how to mark the US depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Leaving a written message is problematic for several reasons. First, languages mutate rapidly: a modern English-speaker is hard-pressed to understand the text of Geoffrey Chaucer. In 10,000 years, the only people who might understand a message written in 21st-century English would be professional linguists with a specialty in extinct languages. Second, simply writing down a message that can last 10,000 years is difficult, since after that passage of time even a message chiseled into granite will be rendered illegible by erosion. If future archaeologists stumbled across a lost site marked by some indecipherable message, they might decide that it was a flag that there was something interesting there -- and not realize it actually meant EXTREME DANGER KEEP OUT THIS MEANS YOU.
Besides, in 10,000 years, technological civilization may have collapsed, and few people may be able to read any languages. That means pictures such as skulls or screaming faces might make better warning signs. However, if people go past the warning signs and find out nothing bad happens to them, they may decide that the signs are just an attempt to invoke boogeymen to keep out treasure hunters -- and then start digging for treasure. The most drastic argument is to simply bury the storage facility in such a way that there's no visible sign it's there. The idea is that a primitive society would not notice the site or have any incentive to break in, while an advanced society would know what was going on and be wise enough to leave it alone.
The Yucca Mountain site will be marked by a set of 7.6-meter (25-foot) tall markers, built of rugged materials and in shapes that are clearly artificial, marked with warnings in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, with picture symbols as backup. Sets of small 23-centimeter (9-inch) markers will also litter the site; a few larger monuments, built in the shape of the international radiation symbol, will contain documents explaining the nature of the site. Nobody's certain all this will work, but since the Yucca Mountain site won't be sealed for decades, there's plenty of time to give the matter more thought.
ED: This reminds me of a short-lived BBC sci-fi series called STAR COPS that was made in the late 1980s and ran here in the 1990s, involving a group of police operating on a Moon base. It was a multinational gang of misfits and losers, run by an engaging but somewhat domineering British cop. In one episode, the head cop was tracking down a bio-researcher who had literally vanished, who had been reported as a missing person by his sister though all mention of him had been struck from the records. It turned out that he had been working on bioweapons research in a module attached to the US space station RONALD REAGAN. As the cop finally discovered, something had gone wrong, with the researcher killed instantly by a hideously virulent and lethal bioagent. The module was welded shut and cast off into deep space orbit, and a cover-up was implemented.
While the head cop was investigating this conspiracy, there was a subplot in which a salvage team, consisting of a bickering husband and wife, found the module and towed it back to the Moon base. They were just firing up a cutting torch to get into the module when the director of the Moon base -- a very polite, articulate, charming, and calculating Russian -- came up behind them and said: "Excuse me ..." They turned around and stared at him. He asked: "Did you ever stop to wonder why this module had been welded shut?" They stared at each other.
The commander of the RONALD REAGAN, incidentally, was a hardcore American stereotype, a buzzcut, beer-gutted, cigar-chewing redneck in baseball cap, bluejeans, and cowboy boots. It's always interesting to see how other folks perceive us.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (6): I couldn't spend too long at the Lowry Park zoo in Tampa because I had to make it to my main stop, Busch Gardens Africa, a few miles away. I had been there before and recalled it was part theme park, part zoo, but on returning it turned out to be a theme park with some zoo attached.
First stop was the MONTU suspended coaster -- the kind where the riders sit on hanging seats, with their feet dangling in the air, which gives a certain sensation of flying. That knocked off the list, I wandered through the park, past the elaborate displays of flowers and plants, which give Busch Gardens definitely a sophisticated and pleasant feel, to end up in the Bird Gardens. The Bird Gardens were the original core of the park. I don't recall too much about it, other than I spent some time in an enclosure with small ponds and wader birds, most interestingly the appropriately-named "stilts", with their long spindly legs. I did manage to get a shot of a mandarin duck drake, in his full colorful plumage, along with his hen, something I'd wanted for a while.
Then I went back on the loop of coasters arranged around the park. The second one I rode was GWAZI, which is a classic wooden coaster -- or rather two of them, with tracks that appear to put the two coasters in operation on a collision course. However, due to the relatively light attendance that day, only one of the two coasters was operating. I don't usually care much for "woodies", since they tend to be rough -- sometimes so rough I end up feeling like I've been beaten to a pulp. GWAZI was rough but not that rough, and though not much fun as far as I was concerned, it wasn't any difficulty, either.
The next coaster was SHEIKRA, which was the current "star" coaster at Busch Gardens. It was a steel roller-coaster, the gimmick being that it drops the riders straight down, twice. It also has exposed seats -- riders sit on top of the car, not in it. I was observing it in action and saw how the car would be left hanging at the top of each drop before it was let go to plunge straight down. On riding it, however, all that seemed to be not much more than gimmickry, since anyone who's ever ridden in a steel coaster with a vertical loop has endured as much or more. It might be different for the folks in the front row of the car -- theme parks often have a special front-row line for their coasters, but I never bother with it. I'll sit up front if there's no competition for the space, but I don't go out of my way to do so. The lines were short at the time, so I went on SHEIKRA a second time.
The fourth coaster I caught was KUMBA, which was one of the older attractions at the site, a good steel roller-coaster with no particularly unusual features. In fact, the most unusual feature was the entrance. Busch Gardens (and, as I found out, most of the other theme parks in the area) have "cool-off spots", typically consisting of a fan coupled to a water mist generator, and I had been stopping at them periodically. The entrance to KUMBA consisted of a causeway roofed with water-vapor pipes at intervals, generating a cooling fog for visitors as they walked in. Incidentally, one of the compensations of the sticky heat was that a lot of the girls were stripped down to shorts and halter top. The idea of taking a few shots crossed my mind, but the part of my brain that exercises judgement immediately shot back a loud emphatic NO in big blinking red neon letters.
There were some water rides at Busch that were getting heavy attendance given the climate that day, but the riders came back soaked to the skin. I wasn't really dressed for the water rides and was carrying a camera anyway, so I went on to another coaster, CHEETAH CHASE. This was a eccentric attraction, what I later found out was called a "wild mouse" coaster. It looked a bit like a carney ride, and though it operated on familiar coaster principles -- with a car taken to the top of a lift hill and then dropped to coast downhill -- it didn't have hills and drops, it had a series of back-and-forth hairpin turns on a gradual slope. It would zip around a curve, stop, start up again with a jerk, spin around a turn again, and so on. I found it half fun, half annoying. Each car could carry four riders, and the most amusing thing was the rider behind me in the back -- a middle-aged Latino gentleman with what I judged to be his teenaged daughter, and as we went around each turn he was laughing and continuously saying: "NOnononono NOnononono NOnonono ... "
The last coaster I hit was PYTHON, which was a relatively small steel roller-coaster. It was OK, nothing special compared to the other attractions -- the most fun part was the fact that the Latino fellow and his daughter were behind me again: "NOnonono ... "
Incidentally, there were lots of Spanish-speakers there, which did not surprise me -- I had encounters where some clearly wanted me to help, but all I could say was: "Sorry, no habla espanol." I find languages a real tough go. The Florida environment was amusingly multiethnic in general -- I saw some Florida Cubanos with FREE CUBA t-shirts, and then there was a family with a very white mom, a very black dad, three white teenager kids right out of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, and two hiphop black teenage kids. I could only think that this family was a prime target for a reality TV show.
There were also a large number of Britons -- not surprising, at two bucks to the pound I expected as much -- who spoke with such a strong accent that under high ambient noise conditions I wasn't sure they were speaking English; I was eventually able to identify school badges on clothes that placed them as Scots. The older guys in these groups were generally stocky, skinheaded, and surly-looking. I thought they might be military given the demeanor, but I later chatted with a UK penpal over email from my hotel room and he told me that was fairly typical for a working-class Scot, what the Scots call a "ned", not too dissimilar from our term "redneck".
Anyway, I wanted to get through the coaster loop as fast as I could to make sure I could get time to ride the Transveldt Railroad, which circumnavigates the park and rides through the African wildlife areas. As it turned out, this wasn't such a good idea, since the train moves at a crawl and spends about half its time in the backlot areas behind the coasters. There's a cablecar ride over the African wildlife areas that looked like it would have been the better option, giving me an unusual line of sight for taking pictures. By the time I was done with the railroad ride, it was getting time to leave and drive to Orlando. In hindsight, although Busch Gardens was scenic, it wasn't as interesting as the Lowry Park Zoo, and riding the roller coasters was a by-the-numbers exercise.
* I had wanted to stop that day at the Fantasy of Flight air museum not far to the west of Orlando but didn't have the time -- it had short open hours and was well away from Tampa. Given how busy I was in Tampa, that was the right decision to make, but I still stopped by on my way to Orlando in hopes that there would be aircraft sitting out on the tarmac. Indeed there was, in the form of an old Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat, something I didn't have in my picture collection. I took some shots from over the fence, but alas it was getting too dark -- when I checked them later they were all blurry.
I finally made it east on I-4 to the International Drive area. The day had gone very well, the only major glitch being that the girl at the check-in desk at the Best Western motel told me to go to room 2103 -- but the cardkey wouldn't work no matter what I did. I knew I was muddled from having been on the move for days and should have been curious as to why the directions she'd given me to the room seemed so far off the location of 2103; when I went back to the desk, she said: "Sorry, I meant 2130." Ah, if I had followed her directions to the room instead being fixated on the number I might have got wise. She straightened out the cards and I said: "So now I won't have to worry about somebody coming out to bust my nose for trying to get into the wrong room."
She replied: "No, they can come and bust my nose." As it turned out, the Best Western was a good choice -- it was clean, quiet, comfortable, the wi-fi access was good, and the water was dangerously hot -- if I just let it run without checking it, I would get scalded if I then shoved my hand in. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (12): Americans like to think of themselves as on the leading edge of technology. That this is not always true is demonstrated by the fact that high-speed rail lines are perfectly normal in Japan and Europe, but effectively unknown stateside.
The Japanese were the pioneers, introducing their "bullet trains" in the mid-1960s, with the French then bringing into service their first "Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV / High-Speed Train)" line in 1981. Top speeds of such trains run to 300 KPH (185 MPH). Surprisingly, they actually aren't all that high-tech. Both the bullet trains and the TGVs are electric trains, running on overhead catenaries, and they run on conventional welded rails, with the Japanese using a concrete foundation and the French relying on a crushed gravel bed with concrete crossties.
There are some differences from normal electric rail technology. The roadbed for a high-speed train is unusually level and features a dedicated right-of-way, walled off to keep animals and people off the tracks. The curves are very smooth, gradual, and slightly banked to ensure passenger comfort; upgrades are no more than 0.35%. The cars are slightly pressurized to ensure that the passengers don't have to clear their eardrums whenever the train goes in or out of a tunnel. One unusual feature is that, unlike a conventional train, there's only one set of bogies per car, arranged between the cars. This saves weight, improved aerodynamics, and reduces swaying.
China has now opened a few high-speed passenger rail lines and is planning major expansions of the service. Other European nations besides France have adopted TGV technology, with the train operations forming up under the "Railteam" umbrella to market and provide transport services to customers in a consistent fashion across national borders. Lines already built or being constructed will provide by 2020 a network across Europe from London in the west to Warsaw in the east, from Hamburg in the north to Naples and Seville in the south. While Railteam has had to confront difficulties such as incompatible national power systems, in an environment where energy is costly and carbon dioxide emissions an ever-increasing worry, high-speed rail boosters think they can steal a march on air travel -- the fast trains are from four to ten times more energy-efficient than aircraft.
There have been prototypes of "maglev" trains, which float on a magnetic cushion on special track and are generally accelerated by magnetic induction. They are capable of extreme speeds, but due to expense they have remained a "technology of the future" for decades. It has been difficult to develop a system that can compete with air travel, and so far only short-range systems have been developed. The only operational maglev line at present is in China, and it only runs between the city's financial district and the airport. Germany is planning a similar short-range maglev line in Munich, and the Japanese say they are planning one as well.
* Why haven't high-speed trains caught on in the USA? Partly the reason is cultural -- Americans are simply not big on riding trains. However, there are practical reasons as well. Places such as Japan, China, and Europe have high population densities, generally concentrated in cities that aren't that far apart. Overall, population centers in the US are more separated, particularly in the West, and linked by an efficient set of interstate freeways -- rarely congested except where they pass through big cities -- as well as a strong network of air connections. It's easier to drive relatively short distances and it's easier to fly relatively long distances.
There are populous parts of the USA where high-speed rail would seem to make sense, for example in Southern California -- a line running from San Diego to San Francisco -- or in the Northeast -- a line from Washington DC to Boston. However, so far the United States has nothing to compete with the bullet train or TGV. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* EXPLOITING THE WIND: Wind power has long been something of a marginal energy source, though in recent years its development has accelerated. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Where The Wind Blows", 28 July 2007), some wind-power advocates believe that wind power is now poised to play a much greater role.
The key is rethinking the power grid. Back in the late 19th century, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse fought a "war of the currents" to determine which form of electrical transmission the power grid would use: Edison's direct current (DC) or Westinghouse's alternating current (AC). AC won out, simply because it could be stepped up to high voltages through a transformer -- and for a subtle set of reasons not easily explained here, power losses were much less for high-voltage currents than for low-voltage currents. Transformers don't work with DC and so AC became the standard.
However, in recent decades high-power switching systems have been developed that allow DC power to be generated at high voltages. High voltage DC (HVDC) lines have a number of advantages over high voltage AC (HVAC) lines:
Dr. Juergen Schmid, the boss of ISET, an alternative-energy institute at the University of Kassel in Germany, has a vision of a pan-European HVDC power grid. He is not advocating this concept because it's whizzy: he believes that it will allow wind power to provide 30% of Europe's electrical needs.
The problem with the wind is that it's not constant, and so as-is, it can't be used for "base power" generation -- that is, the power that has to be provided continuously. The wind is almost always blowing somewhere, however; a continental HVDC network would link wind farms scattered over a huge region, ensuring that wind would be able to provide power on a nearly continuous basis. Hydropower would back up the wind power on the rare occasions when the winds die out everywhere; when wind power is available, it could pump up reservoirs to make sure hydropower will be able to handle the demand when it arises.
A group of Norwegian companies is already building a network of HVDC lines across northern Europe, mainly to export Norwegian power. An Irish company named Airtricity is promoting as a complement to offshore wind farms, envisioning the project starting out with a 10-gigawatt wind farm with 2,000 turbines sited in the North Sea. It would cost billions, but it will be cheaper to build than the equivalent coal-fired plants. Airtricity already operates a 25-megawatt wind power farm in the Atlantic. The Global Energy Network Institute of San Diego, California, has a vision of a global HVDC network, for example linking solar power farms in the Sahara to users in Europe and elsewhere. An intriguing idea, but it would seem useful to prove the idea in Europe first.
* A sidebar article discussed another way of storing wind power besides pumping up reservoirs for hydropower installations: compress air in sealed underground caverns. When the wind dies down, the air is blown out to produce electricity. There are only two compressed-air energy storage facilities in the world, one in the USA and one in Germany. They are actually used in conjunction with the normal power grid, compressors pumping up the caverns during low-load times and the air released to help deal with peak loads. Although the scheme is not very efficient, it beats throwing power away, and it is potentially very useful to back up wind power for times when the breezes die down. A group in the US Midwest is planning a compressed-air storage system, to be sited in Iowa, and British Petroleum is also looking into the idea.BACK_TO_TOP
* INDIA RAIL: The stereotype of railroads in India is of antiquated rolling stock with passengers crammed to the ceiling and riding on the roof, but as reported by BBC.com ("Indian Railways Chug Into The Future", by Sanjoy Majumder), while this stereotype has a basis in reality, it is also being altered by the gradual modernization of the country.
The first railroad in India began operation in 1853, and the Indian rail network provides six billion passenger rides each year. The network consists of 60,000 kilometers (37,250 miles) of track and spans the subcontinent. It is the primary source of transport for India. Traditionally, the Indian rail service was characterized by slow trains, archaic equipment, and decrepit stations, but now Indian Railways (IR) is changing the face of India's railroads. The government-owned IR rakes in the equivalent of billions of dollars a year, with profits double that of India's biggest private company, Reliance Industries. IR is investing that money to remake the rail service, improve customer satisfaction, and draw in more revenue.
Rail travel in India is relatively cheap, with the cost of a ticket from Mumbai to Delhi running from the equivalent of $10 to $73 USD, depending on class of service. Even with such low prices, deregulation of air travel has led to competition from budget airlines, and IR is taking measures to protect its customer base -- for example air-conditioned trains for the masses, more than just a mere luxury in the stifling heat of the Indian summer. At the high of the scale, IR operates high-speed lines such as the Shatabdi Express, which links major Indian cities. The express run from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, which takes seven hours, costs only the equivalent of $32 USD, the passengers riding on cushy airline-style seats, with flat-panel video displays and stewards selling meals.
IR has always provided food service, but now the big stations feature galleries of fast-food restaurants -- McDonald's, pizzerias, coffee shops, and outlets for traditional Indian food. The rail service owns vast real-estate holdings, mostly around the stations, and is now leasing out land to big commercial operations -- Walmart, local businesses, and hotels.
Passengers aren't IR's only business; the rail service is also big on freight hauling. Says an official at one of IR's many inland cargo container depots: "Every half-hour, a container train is setting off somewhere in the country." A dedicated freight line is now being built between Mumbai and Calcutta to handle the flow of cargo.
While IR does have a profitable bottom line, that's not the whole story of what the organization is about. Says Sudhir Kumar, a senior official at the Railway Ministry: "We are still a public utility and are fully conscious of our social obligations. But I feel that there is no inherent conflict between commercial opportunities and social obligation." As IR transforms the Indian rail network, some may feel that a colorful era of rail transport is now fading into the past, being replaced by the bland uniformity of the golden arches of McDonald's and movies-on-demand. Few of those who actually ride the system, however, will deeply regret the passing of the days of broken-down trains and packed passenger cars chugging through the sweltering heat of the summer sun.BACK_TO_TOP
* CHINA MILITARY: Since the 1980s, China has bought four aircraft carriers -- one from Australia and three from the former USSR. As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Long March To Be A Superpower", 4 August 2007), that might seem on the face of it to be a clear indication of China's intent to flex military muscle and obtain a long range "force projection" capability, but on examination there's less there than meets the eye. The Aussie carrier, originally the MELBOURNE, was an antique, with its construction begun during World War II, and the Chinese ultimately scrapped it. Two of the Soviet carriers, the KIEV and the MINSK, were turned into tourist attractions after being given a careful looking-over; they were hybrid cruiser-carriers and the Chinese couldn't fly anything but helicopters off them anyway. The third Soviet carrier, the VARYAG, is a real carrier, but its disposition is unclear.
That effectively sums up the state of China's military modernization efforts: the Chinese want to modernize and improve their combat capabilities, but the road forward has been uncertain -- two steps forward, one step back. However, although China's arms build-up has been somewhat hesitant, the Pentagon is still nervous, with one retired rear admiral telling Congress in 2005 that the Chinese armed forces had achieved a "remarkable leap" in force modernization, and the pace of improvement was "urgently continuing".
China's major military preoccupation at present is Taiwan, with China focusing on short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to maintain pressure against the island. US intelligence believes that China has deployed about 900 DF-11 (NATO reporting name CSS-7) and DF-15 (NATO CSS-6) SRBMs, and that Chinese missile guidance systems have been improving; the missiles are now regarded as a serious threat. In 1995, in annoyance over the decision of the US Clinton Administration to allow the president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-Hui, to make a high-profile visit to his alma mater, Cornell University, the Chinese shot off ten unarmed DF-15s into Taiwanese waters. The Americans sent two aircraft carrier task groups into the area, and the Chinese backed off immediately.
Now the Americans would think twice before performing such a show of force, because Chinese missiles might well be able to target aircraft carriers and penetrate their defensive screens. The Chinese are also now introducing DF-21 (NATO CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) that would be harder to intercept and might, given further improvements in guidance systems, be able to hit carrier task groups well out at sea in the Pacific.
There are clear signs of improvements across the board. Well into the 1990s the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) was a big but antiquated force, with vast ranks of conscripts equipped with old weapon designs and trained in outdated tactics. Now the focus is on a modern air force and navy, which would be the spearheads of an attack on Taiwan. China has bought a dozen KILO-class diesel submarines from the Russians, equipped with new supersonic Sizzler cruise missiles that could penetrate US naval task force defenses. China's four new SOVREMENNY-class destroyers, also bought from the Russians, have the latest supersonic antiship missiles as well.
The Chinese are building their own nuclear-powered attack submarines, and have acquired more than 200 Sukhoi Su-27 / Su-30 fighters since the 1990s, with China building numbers of them under license. The Chinese have also introduced the new J-10 fighter -- a modern machine with some resemblance to the European Typhoon fighter. During the 1995:1996 Taiwan crisis, the Americans were confident of hitting most of China's strategic missiles in their silos before launch preparations were complete. Now the Chinese have fielded a number of road-mobile, solid fuel, quick launch DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and are working on the improved DF-31A, which could hit any target in the USA, as well as on the similarly threatening sub-launched JL-2.
All this is enough to make Pentagon analysts worried, but some caution not to get too upset. The PLA hasn't fought a battle since an incursion into Vietnam in 1979, and that didn't go at all well. The organization is traditionally hidebound, with few believing the Chinese can match US military's ability to assess and act on intelligence, and to coordinate varied military assets -- "jointness" in the nomenclature. There are tales that the Chinese have been hard-pressed to keep much of their fancy Russian-built weaponry working, and the fact that they are dependent on the Russians for the most leading-edge weaponry does not suggest strength -- all the more so because the Russians are reluctant to part with their best weapons. There is little evidence that the PLA engages in many large-scale training exercises, suggesting a low training budget and comparably low preparedness.
The Chinese military is trying to catch up, with Chinese defense industries working on their own advanced weaponry such as the J-10, and trying to get whatever they can elsewhere. There are rumors of Israeli involvement in that program, by the way, and comments that the J-10 looks a lot like the canceled Israeli Lavi fighter -- though the Israelis have loudly denied any connection. The armed forces now wear Western-style uniforms, with complaints that they look too much like American uniforms. Funding is clearly on the increase. The ruling party, believing the military saved the current regime during the public unrest of 1989, let the PLA acquire businesses during the 1990s. When this unsurprisingly led to corruption, the party ordered the military to get out of business, with military budgets increased to compensate. However, with business booming in China, it's hard for the PLA to keep their best talent.
The PLA knows it can't beat the Americans in a head-to-head fight, with some Chinese analysts believing with a fair basis in the facts that the USSR's attempt to match American power one-to-one did much to bring about the Soviet Union's collapse. The Chinese are interested in "asymmetric" warfare, one example being the destruction of an old Chinese satellite in orbit in January 2007, in effect stating a threat to US space infrastructure. Some hardliners in the US believe, on the basis of the fact that a good number of attempts to crack US military computer systems come from China, that the PLA has a program to penetrate US defense networks.
The US does not regard China as an outright enemy and in fact has conducted joint military operations with the Chinese, in the form of search-and-rescue exercises conducted in 2006. These were small efforts, not to compare with the much bigger joint wargames China has conducted with the Russians -- who have, incidentally, not been all that impressed with the Chinese performance in these exercises. Right now the US is keeping a cautious eye on improvements in Chinese military capabilities, while trying to ensure that communications channels remain open.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (5): I left the Super 8 in Ocala, Florida, early on Monday, 17 September. Although it was still dark, it was warm and extremely humid, near or at 100% relative humidity. I cruised off down the highway; I had a busy day and a carefully-planned schedule, with not much time to waste.
First stop was a park to the east of Tampa called Dinosaur World, filled with full-scale dinosaur replicas; it was sort of a marginal objective but it wasn't too expensive, wasn't too far out of my way, and was one of those things that I was curious about, meaning I knew I would be annoyed if I missed it. It turned out to be kind of small, cramped, and cheesy, mostly targeted for the amusement of kids. It had a fair collection of full-scale dinosaurs, painted up somewhat luridly, but I still managed to get a few half-worthwhile shots.
The steamy morning did give it an amusing flavor of authenticity. There was an interesting explanation on signs of how the dinos were made: they were carved out of bulk styrofoam, brushed over with a stiff plastic outercoat, and then painted as desired -- I think they could have done better by being less imaginative with the paint jobs. Overall, it was about what I expected, though I was a bit disappointed that they didn't have any big prehistoric mammals like glyptodonts (giant armadillos), and it would have been fun if they'd had some brightly painted "scrapyard dinosaurs" up front. If I were insanely rich I'd make my own dinosaur park; I even have a map of it in my head.
* I doubled back west and visited the Tampa Lowry Park Zoo, said to be one of the better US midsized zoos. Indeed it was, and it turned out to be one of the more significant stops on the trip. The zoo entrance leads to a central plaza with a manatee fountain in the center; routes snake off from the plaza into different environments.
The most impressive of them was the primate section. One of the problems with monkeys and apes is that they are hard to confine, and so they are usually held behind bars, grills, or nets, making photography difficult or impossible. At the Lowry Park Zoo, they had a number of open enclosures that generally included a pond with the primates kept on an island. I got some great shots of colobus monkeys, something I had been after for my INTRO TO EVOLUTIONARY SCIENCE document -- colobus monkeys are herbivores, living on leaves, and they have some interesting adaptations for that lifestyle.
Other cruising around the zoo led me to the lorikeet enclosure. Lorikeets are nectar-drinking parrots native to Asia; zoos often sell little cups of sweet nectar for visitors to give to the parrots. The only folks in the enclosure were the keepers, me, and a mother with a toddler girl -- the mother had bought a cup of nectar but the little girl was scared when the lorikeets got too close. The mother asked me to hold the cup, and when I took it the birds started to settle on my arms. Then I fumbled and spilled the cup down my shirt; however, the keepers were feeding the birds with a bowl of nectar and suggested I hold it. I immediately had a half dozen or more birds on my shoulders and head; the keepers took a shot of me with my camera to record the moment.
The bird sitting on my head was grooming my hair, which I found an odd experience. Every now and then one would produce a loud "TWEEET!" -- which was a bit uncomfortable when they were sitting next to my ear. There were a number of different species with different coloration, and they were very active -- one of the keepers told me the birds tended to be more restless on very hot and humid days. I got into "Richard Dawkins" mode and asked about any adaptations the birds had as pollinators; it appears that they do have a tongue with a "brush" on the end adapted to nectar sipping. They will eat fruit, but they will crush it up, suck out the juice, and discard the pulp.
One of the other interesting exhibits was a coyote -- which surprised me because the thing's hair was so short, it didn't look much like the kind of coyotes I knew from northern Idaho. I went into Dawkins mode again and after a moment's thought, realized that coyotes down South didn't need to deal with the kind of winters found in the mountains of Idaho and didn't need a luxurious fur coat.
Overall, the zoo was very well-laid-out and attractive. I particularly liked the fact that the carousel used a soundtrack involving a steel drum version of Mozart's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC -- surprisingly, it seemed to work perfectly. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- RAILROADS (11): In North America, the diesel-electric locomotive is the standard engine for hauling trains, but elsewhere electrically-driven locomotives are common. There are substantial advantages to going electric: lighter and faster locomotives since they don't have to supply their own power, plus by the same coin simpler maintenance. Offloading the power to an electric power station also tends to result in greater efficiency and lower pollution. The drawback is obvious: the need to set up the electric power distribution system to run the trains. Electric rail is much more common in Europe than in North America, since the rail lines tend to be shorter as well as more heavily traveled, and fuel costs are higher. In addition, in the USA the rails are mostly devoted to freight, not passengers, and there's not such a need for speed in hauling freight.
Some cross-country rail lines are electrified, particularly around New York City. Rail access to the city is mostly through tunnels and in the days of steam trains it wasn't practical to run a coal-burner underground -- the ventilation problem was too severe. An electric railroad was running into New York City by 1910, in the form of the "Manhattan Transfer" line that shuttled passengers taking steam trains into or out of the city under the river. The lines gradually spread through the Northeast, but that was as far as they went; US railroads lost interest.
Electric railroads run on a bewildering range of voltages, anywhere from about 600 to 25,000 volts. Some locomotives run on DC while others run on AC, but the power distribution system that feeds the line is AC. Booster stations spaced at intervals along the rail line tap off the AC distribution line, stepping down the voltages and rectifying them to DC if necessary. There are also complications in that the AC voltages used by electric trains aren't necessarily at 50 or 60 Hz. This makes interoperability between different electric rail lines, if not impossible, at least troublesome.
The usual means of getting the electricity into the locomotive is through an overhead line, or "catenary", using a spring-loaded levered arm, or "pantograph", that moves up or down to maintain electrical contact. The power line still has to be as level as possible, and to achieve this it's slung on wires underneath a supporting cable, which is held up in turn by a series of posts with arms along the track. The pantograph uses a carbon or copper contact. On fast trains, a fairing may be used to keep the pantograph out of the airstream. The ground return is through the rails.
Subways don't use a pantograph system, instead relying on a "third rail" to provide power. This can be done because people aren't supposed to be in subway tunnels and there's much less chance of innocent bystanders getting fried by stepping between the third rail and ground. The technology is reflected in political slang, however, when legislators refer to politically hazardous ventures as "stepping on the third rail". [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* BIRD BRAIN: We can all generally identify intelligence (or the lack thereof) when we see it, but it's a bit harder to define what intelligence is, at least in any useful way, and it's a long-standing field for research. In 1977, as reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Obituary: Alex The African Grey", 22 September 2007), a 28-year-old theoretical chemist named Irene Pepperberg of the University of Arizona decided to perform an investigation based on a one-year-old African gray parrot she had bought from a pet shop. She named the bird "Alex", which was either an acronym for, or massaged into an acronym for, "Avian Learning Experiment".
Pepperberg's experiment was not based on idle curiosity. At the time, there was an upsurge in what was called "sociobiology", which linked the behavioral and evolutionary sciences. It had been a long-standing puzzle as to why humans developed such a high degree of intelligence; analysis of the possible evolutionary forces driving it had come up with mixed results. One concept, pushed by a British researcher named Nicholas Humphrey, proposed that it was social interactions that pushed human intelligence. Pepperberg knew that parrots were highly social animals, their flocks having interactions far more sophisticated than those of less intelligent birds such as sparrows, and she thought Alex might provide some insights.
Another attractive feature of Alex was that African grays are notably talkative. Studies of intelligence in chimpanzees struggled for a long time since chimps simply don't have the vocal apparatus to pronounce human words, and it wasn't until sign language was brought into that effort that any progress was made. African grays, in contrast, talked easily -- but did they understand what they were saying?
Ultimately, Alex acquired a vocabulary of about 150 words and there was little doubt that he knew what he was saying. He could name about 50 different objects and describe their color, shapes, and the materials they were made from -- wood, plastic, metal. He could count up to six, and even understood the concept of "zero", an idea that humans didn't originally get a handle on until the Middle Ages. Alex could compare two objects using such terms as "bigger", "smaller", "same", and "different"; he would apologize when he antagonized his keepers.
One of the traditional problems with animal training exercises is the "Clever Hans" effect, named after a horse that could supposedly count. It turned out that Clever Hans was simply responding to subtle body cues from his trainer, and nobody else could get him to count. Alex, in contrast, could hold a "conversation" with anyone: if a complete stranger held up five objects, Alex would say: "Five." Alex's intelligence was rated as about at the level of a 4 or 5 year old human. Parrots live a long time, but Alex finally passed away in September 2007 at age 31. At the time, he was working on the concept of "seven".BACK_TO_TOP