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DayVectors

dec 2007 / last mod may 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: bridge & tunnel infrastructure, Florida road trip, living an online life, alien life-forms on Earth, Monsanto wins big with genetically modified crops, no drugs being developed for kids, Chinese product piracy revisited, open-source insurgency, the Earth after humankind, Guantanamo being phased out, mysterious natural stone circles, weak bite of the sabertooth tiger, pollution from livestock wastes, and steampunk laptop.

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[MON 31 DEC 07] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2007
[FRI 28 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (5)
[THU 27 DEC 07] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 26 DEC 07] WATCH CLOSELY
[TUE 25 DEC 07] LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE BOX
[MON 24 DEC 07] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (11)
[FRI 21 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (4)
[THU 20 DEC 07] MONSANTO STRIKES BACK
[WED 19 DEC 07] NO DRUGS FOR KIDS?
[TUE 18 DEC 07] CHINA CLONES REVISITED
[MON 17 DEC 07] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (10)
[FRI 14 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (3)
[THU 13 DEC 07] OPEN-SOURCE INSURGENCY
[WED 12 DEC 07] THE LONG FADE-OUT
[TUE 11 DEC 07] GOING GOING GITMO
[MON 10 DEC 07] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (9)
[FRI 07 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (2)
[THU 06 DEC 07] MYSTERY STONES
[WED 05 DEC 07] BITE OF THE SABERCAT
[TUE 04 DEC 07] PIG POLLUTION
[MON 03 DEC 07] STEAMPUNK LAPTOP

[MON 31 DEC 07] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2007

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2007: Opponents of Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez were pleased when a referendum that he was pushing to allow him to be re-elected president indefinitely was voted down. Those happy with this outcome had to temper their joy with the fact that the margin of the vote was small, and that he has plenty of other opportunities to enhance his power.

However, THE ECONOMIST pointed out in the aftermath of the vote that the opposition to Chavez, which has long been disorganized and publicly discredited, is now starting to rally and form a reasonably united front against the efforts of Chavez to undermine the Venezuelan constitution and consolidate his power. In addition, although Chavez has been heavily boosted by soaring oil prices that allow him to buy support from the poor, his government is corrupt and inefficient, people haven't ended up being much better off while government bureaucracies have grown, and many of the poor are starting to have their doubts about Venezuela's socialist revolution. There are already doubts among the military and even Chavez's own party. Chavez will now remain in power until at least 2013; what happens then is anyone's guess.

* Recent parliamentary elections in Russia got a lot of bad international press for election irregularities. Vladimir Putin's United Russia party raked in over 64% of the vote; that wasn't surprising since Putin and United Russia have a comfortable margin of public support, the surprising thing was that they felt any need to cheat. BBC WORLD spoke with some old folks in an impoverished village and they all said they would vote for United Russia, though one level-headed oldster put his finger on the reason: Putin and company were merely the best of a bad lot, "he's not a drunk and he's smart."

The election irregularities were officially denounced by the governments of Poland and Germany, and there were calls internationally for an investigation. The British were particularly unhappy that Andrei Lugovoi, wanted in the UK for possible connection to the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, got a seat in parliament. Videos of noisy mobs of United Russia supporters showed them waving teddy bears around. Huh? Oh, the Russian Bear, I get it -- though somehow I never visualized teddy bears in that context. Maybe that indicates a warmer, cuddlier Russian Bear. Or maybe not.

* The Bush II Administration ended up doing a good deal of tapdancing after the US intelligence community released a "national intelligence estimate (NIE)" that suggested Iran's nuclear weapons program had been on hold for a few years. Veiled threats of preemptive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, never regarded as all that credible to begin with, definitely went on the back burner.

The subtle and more significant aspect to this incident, as was pointed out, was that since Bush is an unpopular lame-duck president, the Washington bureaucracy is beginning to reassert its independence of action. There have long been accusations that the Bush II Administration pressured the intelligence services to provide politically convenient answers instead of the accurate answers. Nobody can credibly suggest that's happening now.

As might have been expected, the Iranian government crowed about the NIE, proclaiming it proved what they had been saying all along, that their nuclear program was for peaceful purposes. It was likely very welcome news to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since a report in THE ECONOMIST suggests the citizenry are not all that happy with him and his government. Many see him as squandering the country's oil money on subsidies mainly designed to buy political support, avoiding work on needed reforms, letting inflation and shortages spiral out of control, creating problems for business by encouraging international sanctions through sabre-rattling, and gradually ramping up public oppression that had been considerably relaxed under his immediate predecessors. His lunatic-fringe exercises in Holocaust denial have been an embarrassment to educated Iranians.

The article went on to say that suspicions of the Iranian nuclear program had a very strong basis in simple logic. Examination of its economics makes the claim that the program is peaceful, or even practical on a civil basis, hard to swallow. There's only one nuclear plant about ready to come on line, and for the money and time Iran could have already have ten fossil-fuel powerplants on line, burning natural gas that is simply flared off from the country's oilfields for lack of anything better to do with it. The Russians are shipping enriched uranium to get the reactor going, leading Bush to pointedly ask why the Iranians are so determined to build their own enrichment facilities at an enormous pricetag, when they could buy the enriched uranium from the Russians for less than it would cost to make the home-grown product.

Few outsiders honestly believe the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful; in fact, it's an interesting question of how many Iranians believe it. The current lapse in enrichment is generally seen as a dodge to get international pressure off of Iran's back. What was not particularly noticed in the flap over the NIE was that it predicted Iran could have the bomb by 2015 -- which was effectively the same conclusion as provided by earlier intelligence estimates.

The article suggested that there are some surprising similarities between George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: both are devout, both are idealists rather than pragmatists, both are single-minded, both are good at folksy populism, both have stacked their administrations with kindred spirits -- and both are unpopular with their own electorates. The major difference is that "it has taken Mr. Ahmadinejad just two years in power to achieve the unpopularity that Mr. Bush has gained after six."

As far as the unpopularity of Bush goes, on viewing a video of Al Gore accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for his evangelism on global warming, I could only suspect that Gore was thinking: Thank Bob I lost the presidential election in 2000! With Gore being hyped like a movie superstar, winning Oscars and Nobels, while Republican presidential candidates do everything they can to avoid being endorsed by or even mentioning George W. Bush, who couldn't think that Gore hasn't ended up with the better deal?

* In "world cartoon news", a court in the Indian town of Dhanbad was confronted with a legal battle over a plot of land containing temples to the Hindu deities Ram and Hanuman. The temple priest said he owned the land, the locals insisted the two gods did; the case had already been through court before, with the decision in favor of the gods. The priest is now challenging the verdict.

When the defense insisted that the property was owned by the gods, Judge Sumar Kumil Singh shrugged and mailed the two gods a summons to court. The mail came back stamped INSUFFICIENT ADDRESS, so Judge Singh took out an ad in local papers, telling the two gods they had failed to answer previous court summons: "You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally."

Somehow I am reminded of the remark, I think was by Salman Rushdie, about the idiosyncrasies of living in a country where humans do not overwhelmingly outnumber gods. I understand Hanuman is a notorious jokester -- of course, he's the monkey god -- and so likely appreciates the spirit of this exercise.

* I have to add as something of a final comment for 2007 that this is the second full calendar year I have been running the blog. I find it somewhat amazing that I've been able to pump out five articles a week consistently for that long. I would have figured I'd run out of steam long ago.

I do find that it helps to build up a big buffer of articles. With all my running around this year, I would have run dry over the last few months if I hadn't had a stack of prewritten articles to draw from. At first, I thought that having more than 30 or so articles queued up was too much, but now I'm uncomfortable if I have less than 50. Having a buffer also allows me to be choosier about what I use in the blog, weeding out the occasional weak article before I end up using it, and lets me provide a bit more variety instead of getting trapped in a rut.

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[FRI 28 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (5)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (5): Tunneling, like bridge-building, is an ancient technology. It has always been difficult, and often very unsafe. The Romans, who were sophisticated engineers, were the most prominent pioneers of tunnel building, carving holes through mountains for aqueducts to bring fresh water to Rome. A total of eleven aqueducts was built to supply Rome and one, the "Aqua Virginae", is still in use. They also built an extensive storm-drain system, and the great "Cloaca Maxima" also still survives today. They were built generally using slaves, with rock cracked away by setting fires against the rock face and then throwing water on it. This was obviously dangerous and casualties were high.

The importance of tunnels began to increase with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and improved technology for bulk transport -- first canals, then railroads. As with mining, the introduction of black powder and then high explosives, coupled with the development of heavy-duty drills and other digging tools, made driving tunnels through rock much more practical, if not exactly easy.

Digging a tunnel through a rocky mountain is one job; digging one in the earth below a river is another that poses very different problems. The first to seriously address those problems was Marc Isambard Brunel, a Frenchman who had moved to England in the early 19th century, where he proved himself a brilliant inventor and a terrible businessman. While in debtor's prison after the collapse of one of his schemes, he came up with an idea for a tunnel-boring system -- inspired by the "shipworm", a marine mollusk that bored through the wooden hulls of ships with a hard-beaked head, secreting a substance that formed a hard lining for its soft body as it went. In 1824, supported by a grant from the British parliament, he began work on a tunnel under the Thames River using his new technology.

Brunel's tunnel-boring system was crude by modern standards, but seemingly a marvelous idea at the time. It was a cast-iron rectangular "shield" 11.6 meters wide and 6.7 meters tall (38 by 22 feet) with 36 cells, with a workman in each cell, in three stacked rows of twelve cells. The shield's walls, top, and bottom provided support against the loose and damp soil under the river.

The front of each cell was faced by planks that could be removed, one at time, to allow the workmen to dig into the earth. The earth was removed in small increments, and then the plank was returned into place to minimize leakage of water and muck. The earth was carted away for disposal up the completed and lined tunnel behind the frame. When enough earth had been removed from the front of the cell, it was moved forward with screw jacks. Once all the cells had been moved forward, the new open space behind the shield was lined with bricks, and the workmen began digging again through the earth under the river just like the shipworm through the ship's hull. The effort proved troublesome, plagued by setbacks, and the tunnel wasn't completed until 1843.

* Brunel had, however, established the technology for underwater tunnels, and tunnels began to be dug elsewhere. Tunnels were dug to connect New York City, on the island of Manhattan, to the mainland, with five tunnels complete by 1906 and many others under construction.

The network of subway and utility tunnels around Manhattan spread. In the meantime, another factor had arisen to complicate city traffic, the spread of the automobile. Drivers trying to get to New Jersey had to take the ferry, which became a chokepoint. In 1920, New York City decided to build a automobile tunnel under the Hudson River, the first such tunnel to be built anywhere. The project was to be directed by a young engineer with a degree from Harvard named Clifford Holland.

The first problem that Holland had to deal with was tunnel ventilation. The cars of the time were particularly "dirty" by modern standards, emitting large quantities of poisonous carbon monoxide, and the tunnel would be long enough to make the venting of such gases both very necessary and troublesome. Holland decided that he would set up a breeze through the tunnel. He designed four ten-story ventilation buildings, two on each side of the Hudson, with huge electric fans, each 2.5 meters (8 feet) in diameter, to blow the exhaust fumes out. At the time, they were the largest fans ever built. The airflow set up by the fans would be enough to completely replenish the air in the tunnel every 90 minutes. Fans of the movie MEN IN BLACK will recognize the ventilation buildings, since one is used as the entrance to the secret underground Men In Black headquarters.

Holland Tunnel ventilator buildings

Holland had to also consider how to deal with accidents that might block the tunnel, and most frightening of all, a fire, such as might be started by a tanker truck involved in an accident. The tunnel ventilation system had a strong interaction with the fire hazard: in the worst case, the ventilation system might potentially turn a fire in one section of the tunnel into an inferno over its entire length.

Two tunnels were built, with shields working in both directions. The tunnels were 8.85 meters (29 feet) wide and 2,590 meters (8,500 feet) long The tunnel was fitted with bulkheads as a safety precaution, to ensure that the entire tunnel wouldn't be flooded in case of a blowout. The first tunnel was holed through in 1924, two days after Holland had died of heart failure at age 41. The project was taken over by Norwegian-born Ole Sinstad. The tunnel finally opened in 1927. A parade of 20,000 people marched through, and then the tunnel was opened to traffic. The first automotive collision in a tunnel occurred an hour and a quarter later.

The world's first automobile-tunnel fire took place in the Holland Tunnel in 1949 when a truck loaded with chemicals lit up in the New Jersey side of the tunnel. 69 people were injured and the tunnel was seriously damaged, but fortunately no one was killed. The Holland Tunnel now handles 100,000 vehicles a day. The original fans are still in operation, driving fresh air through the tunnel. Holland's design was the basis for automotive tunnels from that time on. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 27 DEC 07] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: In the "is this brilliant or crazy?" category, WIRED Online discussed a new memory technology named "Eye-Fi", built by a company of the same name. The Eye-Fi card looks and functions exactly like a standard 2 GB secure digital (SD) flash ROM card, but it also contains a wi-fi interface. Plug it in to a camera, and abraca-pocus, the pictures can now be accessed via wi-fi. No fussing around with USB or pulling cards in and out -- in fact, the pix can be sucked up by a PC even as they are being taken, as long as the camera's in wi-fi range. The associated software can even automatically file the pix onto an online photo site, like FaceBook or Flickr.

* A recent report on BBC WORLD Online indicates that the British are among the world's most enthusiastic users of digital gadgetry. One unfortunate consequence of this is the challenge of figuring out where to plug in all the whizzy household toys.

As regulated by the technical standards issued by the UK National House Building Council, a three-bedroom house needs at least 38 electric sockets, more than twice as many as 30 years ago. That's all very well and good for new homes, but Britain is heavy with large numbers of Victorian and Edwardian homes, whose designers didn't quite foresee the need. The immediate answer is the power strip, allowing a half-dozen appliances to share one socket, but this only aggravates the rat's nest of cables around the house. Furniture makers do their best to accommodate power cords, using discreet conduits with input and output holes, but there is an increasing realization that something better is needed.

One new gimmick is a "smart" power strip that cuts power to everything in the strip when the device plugged into the primary socket is turned off; that means if a PC is plugged into the primary socket, turning it off will automatically cut power to printers and other support devices. Those dreaming of "smart homes" envision a day when hitting a single switch on the way out the door will shut down everything in the house, except for items programmed to stay on, such as the fridge and the clocks.

Some see the ultimate scheme as no sockets at all, with electricity passed over short range by radio waves from an radiating power source operating on a narrow band to antennas in the gear to be powered. A proof of concept was demonstrated recently by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The wavelengths are low enough to not cause any serious power dissipation in humans or furniture, but arguments persist on just how efficient the scheme can be.

* In the "things you never thought of" category, WIRED Online reported on a company named "Mobile Complete" that operates as a service to software developers working on mobile phones. The company takes mobile phones and electronically dissects them, wiring up all their inputs and outputs into an internet server so that developers can access their functions from over the web. The developers have full access to all the functionality of each phone through a graphical replica in their web browser -- they could even order a pizza on one.

Since there's a lot of different types of mobile phones out there, it makes sense for developers to sign up for Mobile Complete's "DeviceAnywhere" service. It's not cheap, but it would cost a developer much more to buy every type of phone and tinker with them. The developers have full access to all the functionality of each phone through a graphical replica in their web browser: they can "virtually" remove batteries and plug in USB cables, courtesy of switches attached to the dissected phone. They could even order a pizza on one. The system's software provides a recorded audit trail of interactions with a phone.

Mobile Complete facilities have been set up in a number of cities in the US and Europe. The company was set up with cellphone giant Motorola's backing. The client roster includes major cellphone carriers; hardware manufacturers like Palm, Sony Ericsson, and of course Motorola; plus big entertainment and game developers such as AOL, Disney, Electronic Arts, & ESPN.

* In the "glow in the dark" category, BUSINESS WEEK had a short article on a nuclear power source being promoted by a Santa Fe, New Mexico, startup named Hyperion Power Generation (HPG). In essence, the power source is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), along the lines of those used in spacecraft but bigger, about the size of a hot tub. An RTG contains radioactive isotopes that release heat that is then converted into electricity, usually through thermoelectric junctions -- dissimilar metals joined together that produce electricity when heated. They could also, in principle, run a Stirling engine to drive a generator.

The HPG unit can produce 25 megawatts for five years, enough to drive a small town. The idea is to provide power sources for isolated remote sites. The article had a "roll the eyes" comment that it was "impossible" for the RTG to go into meltdown. Yeah, well, no RTG can go into meltdown, since they're not made of fissionable materials -- just because an element is radioactive doesn't mean that it can support a chain reaction. Now if somebody blew up the RTG, it would still leave one hell of a radioactive mess.

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[WED 26 DEC 07] WATCH CLOSELY

* WATCH CLOSELY: A short article in WIRED ("The Visible Man" by Clive Thompson, June 2007), told the interesting story of Hasan Elahi, a Bangladesh-born American professor of arts at Rutgers University. He runs a website titled "TrackingTransience.net", which details his daily existence down to every debit-card transaction. He takes pictures of his immediate environment several times a day, uploads them, and now has tens of thousands of pictures on his website. The website features a display that uses a GPS tracker to give a map location of his whereabouts, and records his movements continuously.

This might sound like the ultimate in pointless exhibitionism, but Elahi is doing it for a very serious reason: he wants to avoid being locked up in Guantanamo as a terrorist. Elahi travels a lot, and when he came back from a trip to the Netherlands in 2002, he was picked up by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on his arrival in Detroit. The FBI had got a tip that he was involved with smuggling explosives; they cleared him, but Elahi was not reassured, since he was on the government's radarscope and he knew it would be hard to get back off again. Since he travels a great deal, he worried that he might get arrested and end up in Guantanamo.

The FBI had given him their number, so he got into the habit of calling them before he left on trips. After playing this game for a while, he then decided to extend the idea, setting up a website that tracks his movements in detail. As he points out, he can do a better job of tracking himself than the government can, reducing the possibility of dangerous misunderstandings. Elahi says: "It's economics -- I flood the market." He figures that if large numbers of people start tracking themselves in the same sort of detail, it will give Big Brother a real headache, drowning him too much information to sort through. Some of his students have taken him up on the idea.

* As a footnote, an article in BUSINESS WEEK described that it's actually getting easy to track oneself, using cellphones enabled to pick up signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation constellation. Finnish cellphone giant Nokia, for example, has recently introduced the N95 "Smartphone" that has a camera, music player, and GPS receiver. In 2007, total sales of phones capable of picking up GPS signals were estimated at a total of 162 million units. Cellphone operators have been quick to offer software services to exploit GPS capabilities. Street directions and maps are the least of it: Verizon offers a service named "Chaperone" that allows parents to track the movements of their kids on a web page and automatically receive a message when the kid gets to a prespecified destination. Sprint and Boost Mobile offer "Loopt", a scheme for tracking friends and providing notifications when they're nearby.

Of course, there are business applications as well. A hospital in Seattle, a city known to be hard to drive around in, has provided doctors and nurses making house calls to shut-ins with GPS cellphones to help guide them to destinations. The direction software service, "TeleNav", cost ten bucks a month per user, but it more than pays for itself in terms of minimizing lost time.

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[TUE 25 DEC 07] LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE BOX

* LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE BOX: One of the really big questions in science is: just how did life get started on Earth? Nobody has more than educated speculations on the origins of life; some think it was a wildly improbable fluke, others think it was something that was a certain to happen under the conditions of the early Earth. There's no way to know which of these options to bet on, though if we did find clearly alien microorganisms on another world, Mars or Europa or Titan, that would definitely tilt the balance towards the "sure bet" point of view.

British physicist Paul Davies, well known for his writings on "bleeding edge" scientific topics, suggested in an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Are There Aliens Among Us?", December 2007) that we might not even need to go to other worlds to find alien life-forms: they may be coexisting with life as we know it on this planet.

This is one of these ideas that sounds too loopy to be taken seriously, but there is an interesting rationale behind it. All the life on Earth that we know about right now is clearly related, using the same basic biochemical mechanisms, such as DNA or RNA for coding, and part of a common evolutionary history. If we found organisms that had nothing in common with the biochemistry of life as we know it, then the only plausible explanations would be that they came from another world, riding on a meteor, or arose separately on Earth. Either way, life would have arisen twice, not just once, and those believing that the origins of life are a good bet would have reason to feel they were on the right track.

The obvious reply to this notion is to ask where such "alien" organisms are. Wouldn't it be obvious if they were around? Well, yes, for macroscale organisms, but not for microorganisms. Microorganisms are all over the place, in massive numbers, which means that looking for anything in particular among them is like hunting for a tiny needle in a giant haystack. It's hard to tell much about microorganisms just by looking at them under a microscope; we have to examine their biochemistry to determine if they're something unusual.

We've already made one major discovery by checking more closely. In the 1970s, American microbiologist Carl Woese investigated a number of "extremophile" microorganisms -- single-celled life-forms that live in extreme environments, such as hot springs -- that had been assumed to be simply odd forms of bacteria. Their biochemistry turned out to be completely different, so much so that Woese's "archaea" are now regarded as a different kingdom of life from bacteria. The archaea are different from other earthly organisms, but they still belong to the tree of life as we know it. However, having missed an entire kingdom of life until recently, it becomes more plausible to think that we may be missing forms of life that are completely out of the box of life as we know it -- all the more so because such alien microorganisms may not respond to normal biological tests, keeping them invisible. They may also be much smaller than ordinary bacteria, which would help keep them out of sight.

Where might alien organisms be found? The archaea tend to be extremophiles, living in environments that kill most other organisms, and so it might be useful to look for signs of biological activity in places where ordinary life should be impossible -- deep underground, high in the atmosphere, sites heavily polluted by toxic metals, salt mines, and so on. Extremophiles that have been found in such sites are clearly not aliens, but plenty remains to be discovered about extremophiles, and we might find something completely different if we're careful to look for it.

A long shot? Absolutely, but worth the effort if it pays off, and if we don't find alien organisms in the search, we'll learn so much about ordinary life that the work will be worthwhile anyway.

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[MON 24 DEC 07] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (11)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (11): After my crummy day on Wednesday, I had some reason to wonder after I got up on Thursday, 19 September, that my trip was about ready to go down the pipes. However, I managed to recover from that fumble, and in fact changing plans to visit EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom on a day that went to hell allowed me to make better use of my time the next day.

There was a helicopter tours outfit on International Drive that had a nonoperational Sikorsky S-76 copter as a display, and since I didn't have an S-76 in my photo collection I had to drop by after sunup to get some shots. I got a bonus -- there was a mockingbird there, and as long as I was down South I had to get a pix of one. I could get very close to it, it seemed almost as curious about me as I was about it. Possibly I was close to its nest and it wanted to keep an eye on me. Mockingbirds are aggressive -- they will dive-bomb cats prowling around their nests and drive them off. I felt like it was something of a lucky encounter, and it got the day off on an encouraging note.

I went to a buffet for breakfast and was amused to see a stack of DAILY MAILs for sale to Britons -- yeah, obviously there were a lot of visitors from the UK in the area. In any case, I finally got on the road to go back to Disney World, this time to Disney Animal Kingdom. I didn't know what to expect -- the guidebook said it was like a bigger and better version of Busch Gardens Tampa, which is a pretty good standard of comparison. As it turned out, it was exactly what I needed for the day.

The park opens into the OASIS area, which is a low-key, heavily landscaped zoo area with a number of exhibits of parrots and other exotic beasties. The exhibits were pleasant, though they tended to be dark, making it hard to get good pix. Then I went on to the DINOLAND part of the park. It has some outdoor dinosaur statues and a T. Rex skeleton exhibit along the CRETACEOUS TRAIL mini-park, but given that I was still not entirely recovered from the previous day, I couldn't even contemplate taking in the thrill rides. There was a DINOSAUR time-travel simulation -- I turned green even thinking of it. I was a bit sorrier to have to pass up PRIMEVAL WHIRL, which was a small "wild mouse" type coaster featuring spinning cars. It looked like great fun, but I had to restrict myself to taking pictures -- there was no way I would ride it and not regret it.

The ASIA section of the park featured EXPEDITION EVEREST, a roller-coaster ride along the lines of a scaled-up MATTERHORN BOBSLED. I went past it to enjoy the other exhibits. Some of the attractions weren't even exhibits -- there were ducks walking around, accompanied by moorhens, "lily-pad walkers", like coots but with feet featuring long spidery toes. There was also a gibbon exhibit, with the beasts holed up on a island in a pond containing a replica of an old temple. The gibbons weren't too active and the shots I got of them weren't entirely satisfactory, but they were better than nothing. Incidentally, there was some unplanned color in the ASIA exhibit through the presence of the equivalent of a busload of Buddhist monks in their saffron robes. They were South Asian in appearance and so I figured them to be Sri Lankan; they seemed to be under the direction of tour guides in civvies.

The FLIGHTS OF WONDER wild-bird show was recommended in the guidebook, and I made a beeline for there. The show itself was hokey, clearly targeted for kids, but who cared? The birds were spectacular. After the show, I got great close-up shots of owls and macaws, with me standing right next to their handlers and snapping off pix right into the faces of the birds.

Disney FLIGHTS OF WONDER show

I checked out the CAMP MINNIE-MICKEY section next; it didn't seem like much and wasn't, mainly being a place where kids could pose with Disney characters. As I found out later, there had been plans to put in much more elaborate attractions in that location that had fallen through, and CAMP MINNIE-MICKEY was set up as a stopgap. In any case, I shrugged and went on to the AFRICA section, wandering along the PANGANI FOREST EXPLORATION TRAIL, which had a number of fine exhibits.

I took a train ride, but like at Busch Gardens it didn't turn out to be a good use of time. It went back to the animal-care stables; the animals actually spent their nights there, being called back from their exhibits by various cues. There was a petting zoo for the kids at the terminus; the only attraction for me was a girl playing Pocahontas who looked like a movie starlet. Since she was posing for shots with kids to begin with, I was tempted to take a shot but after equivocating the answer from my judgement center came back NO again, and I made a mental note to make NO the immediate default answer in any similar situation in the future.

Anyway, there was a similar exploration trail back in the ASIA section, and it proved even more interesting -- in particular, with an exhibit featuring a flock (is that the right word?) of big flying fox bats. The viewing platform was open to the bats and I could get unobstructed shots of them. I'd never seen any exhibit in a zoo like it.

It appears that Disney is determined to be taken seriously as a professional zoo-keeper, despite the organization's bad history from its hokey old TRUE-LIFE NATURE videos of the 1960s -- and has to a large extent succeeded. I got to chatting with a staff member in an exotic bird enclosure, where I got a shot of a mandarin duck drake, and she told me that the drake loses all its plumage after mating season and looks just like the drab hen. I went into Dawkins mode once more -- why would it dump the feathers after expending such resources to create them? After thinking it over I realized it was because, once the mating season was over, the bright plumage made the drake more vulnerable to predators and would be best profitably when not needed to attract hens. Then I thought: "I really think I've been reading too much Richard Dawkins."

Disney's Animal Kingdom is built around the huge TREE OF LIFE, decorated with a vast range of imagery -- however, I didn't really get around to inspecting it, nor take in the IT'S TOUGH TO BE A BUG presentation inside. I felt like I'd had my fill for the day. Still, Disney's Animal Kingdom was very much worth the time. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 21 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (4)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (4): Pontoon bridges, in which the roadbed is supported by floats or "pontoons", are nothing new, having long been used by the military, since they can be put up relatively easily using transportable kit. Surprisingly, they have been used on occasion for large, fixed highway bridges as well -- the most famous being the two pontoon bridges spanning Lake Washington, in the Seattle metropolitan area. The largest of the two, the Lake Washington pontoon bridge, is supported by 25 reinforced concrete pontoons, each with dimensions of 106.7 x 18.3 x 4.3 meters (350 x 60 x 14 feet). The bridges are held in place by cables strung down to concrete anchors. The pontoons have sprung leaks and sunk on rare occasions. The bridge has telescoping sections to permit boat traffic to get through the span -- which leads to the topic of moving bridges in general.

The most familiar moving bridge is the "bascule bridge", named after a French term meaning, more or less, "seesaw". In this configuration, the bridge simply tilts up, with a counterweight making the moveable section easier to tilt. There may be one section, or two that tilt up from both sides of the bridge. The decking on the bascule segment is usually an open steel mesh to reduce weight -- lifting a concrete roadbed would be problematic, though the mesh is hard on bicycle tires. A number of different mechanisms -- cable or chain draws, screws, hydraulic pistons -- are used on bascule bridges. They are electrically actuated, and there's always a diesel backup generator on hand, since the bridge has to keep working even when city power goes down.

bascule bridge, Seattle

Another configuration for a moveable bridge is the "lift bridge", in which the roadbed is lifted straight up by towers on both sides. They're commonly used on rail lines because they can handle a heavier roadbed, and maintaining track alignment isn't much of a problem. The lift bridge has poorer clearance for the water traffic than a bascule bridge, which is open to the sky, and it's also important to make sure the lift mechanisms on the two towers don't get out of synch, resulting a jam.

Finally, there's the "swing bridge" or "pivot bridge", in which the span simply pivots 90 degrees horizontally to let traffic through. The only problem is that it usually results in a narrow channel. In any case, moveable bridges are generally curiosities these days, familiar to locals but odd to out-of-towners. They're hard to keep working and require staffing for normal operation, and it's generally simpler just to build a tall bridge -- all the more so because in the US Federal funds are often available to help build a bridge, but not to keep it operating.

* Bridges are not built as entirely rigid structures -- they can't be, since they expand and contract with changes in temperature, and if they were solidly bolted together, they would gradually break themselves apart. Bridges typically have expansion joints, not so different from those on freeways, but on longer bridges they may feature interlocking fingers since the length can change by a handwidth or more, with the finger spanning the gap. Underneath the bridge, there are "bridge bearings" that connect the roadway to the piers or towers or abutments, consisting of steel plates with contact pads of bronze, lead, or teflon; or various roller schemes; rack and pinion structures; and so on.

There's a variety because none of them work all that well. They work well enough when they're new, but bridges are generally around for a long time, and the bearings eventually tend to get locked up with rust or gummed with dirt. Once the bearings start to go south, the roadway or the foundation starts to crack. Steel arch bridges often also have hinges at the end of the arches, to allow them to flex in response to thermal or load changes. This is hard to do with concrete arch bridges.

In areas where earthquakes are common, so are restraint schemes meant to keep the bridge standing in an earthquake. Such bridges feature items like auxiliary steel cabling, interlocking elements, and steel collars around concrete piers. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 20 DEC 07] MONSANTO STRIKES BACK

* MONSANTO STRIKES BACK: There has been a loud public outcry against "genetically modified (GM)" plants, and much of the wrath against GM has been focused on 106-year-old American agritech giant Monsanto, the biggest developer and promoter of GM crop plants. According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Monsanto: Winning the Ground War" by Brian Hindo, 17 December 2007), the much-despised company, known as "Mutanto" by its critics, is now feeling smug: Monsanto and its GM crops are thriving.

The reason is that the critics are greatly outnumbered by the farmers around the world who are planting Monsanto crops. While the critics play up unsettling potential problems with GM crops, farmers have been much more impressed with the fact that Monsanto's pest-resistant and pesticide-resistant crops bring in bigger profits. It's a no-brainer; although Monsanto charges a premium for the GM seed, the farmers still see it as a bargain and are perfectly happy to support Monsanto's fat profit margins.

Even in the US, where the resistance to GM crops has been strong, if not as strong as in Europe, over half the crops grown are now GM -- including nearly all the soybeans and about 70% of the corn. Five years ago, China, Brazil, and India planted almost no GM crops; now they're among the top six GM crop producers. To add to the irony, in 2003, Brazilian President Lula da Silva announced the intent to make Brazil "GM free", but the Brazilian government couldn't hold back the tide. At present, GM crops are grown on 7% of the world's farmland.

Partly the push towards GM has been driven by biofuels. Not only has the shift of crop production towards biofuels increased demand on crop productivity, but it is difficult to raise the same sort of safety concerns for corn grown to produce ethanol as corn grown for the supermarket; it's also proven harder to provoke controversy over corn grown to produce corn syrup. In fact, few could stand to eat an ear of Monsanto GM corn, since it was designed solely as a feedstock, not for direct consumption as is sweet corn, and so no consumer will ever see it in a supermarket produce section. We end up eating it anyway in a wide range of processed foods, and now GM crops are a significant component of the diet of Americans, like it or not. Some Monsanto executives crow that in over a decade of use of GM crops, all the dire fears raised by the anti-GM movement haven't come true, and mock the "misinformation", "scare tactics", and "Chicken Little theatrics" of the critics.

Sneers may not be the most sensible response to public worries that haven't gone away, but Monsanto officials feel they have a right to hand out some payback to the critics. In 2003, when the current CEO, a Scotsman named Hugh Grant (of course not the same person as the actor), took over direction of the company, Monsanto was under extreme pressure from the "Frankenfoods" backlash. Grant decided to stay the course, continuing to pump 10% of sales into research and development -- but also shrewdly decided to shift Monsanto's product focus away from foods that went straight from the farm to the grocery shelves, instead targeting agribusiness markets such as animal feed, ethanol, and corn syrup. Four appropriate crops were targeted -- corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola -- and work on other crops, such as disease-resistant bananas, was shelved. The "business to business" strategy worked precisely as planned.

However, Monsanto took a very big risk in adopting this aggressive strategy, since the company is now the biggest producer of GM crop plants by far, with GM products accounting for 60% of sales. Other competitors only get about 20% of their sales from GM seeds. If some ugly problem emerges, resulting in a backlash against GM foods that makes previous agitation look petty in comparison, Monsanto is going to suffer accordingly.

The critics certainly haven't shut up. Some crow themselves about how they pressured Monsanto out of the business of GM crops for the produce shelves, but others realize that this is cosmetic distinction, since GM crops are being planted in ever greater quantity and consumers are getting GM anyway through processed foods. Grant himself has tried to put a lid on the countersniping from Monsanto officials and take a more cooperative line with the critics, working on studies to help confirm that GM crops actually are safe. From Monsanto's point of view, why not? With so much farmland planted with GM crops and no sign of real problems yet, company officials have good reason for confidence that they will be increasingly vindicated as time goes on, and if there are pitfalls, it would be a very good thing to find out about them before they become a real threat.

The company is now working towards a 2010 introduction of corn with eight new genes, six to deal with pests and two to cope with pesticides. Monsanto expects the "SmartStax" seed to be a big hit, a worthy follow-up to earlier Monsanto GM successes. Says Grant: "Once farmers see this stuff, they don't want to go back."

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[WED 19 DEC 07] NO DRUGS FOR KIDS?

* NO DRUGS FOR KIDS? As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("When A Spoonful Of Sugar Won't Do", 8 December 2007), it comes as something of a nasty surprise and an unfortunate comment on the priorities of the medical industry to discover that, for all the money pumped into drug development and production, very little of it is spent on drugs for kids, and the lack of appropriate drugs for kids is a serious problem in undeveloped nations.

According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), about 60 essential medicines are not available in formulations appropriate for use by children. The problem is particularly acute with children afflicted by HIV-AIDS, with a WHO medical specialist commenting: "Some kids with HIV need to take 12 huge tablets a day ..... and they taste horrible." He adds that there are no suitable combination drugs, no soluble tablets, and no syrups.

WHO is now trying to raise $50 million USD from its member states for a fund to kick-start the development of children's drugs, and also encourage governments and companies to pay more attention to the issue. The US did pass the Best Pharmaceuticals For Children Act in 2002 to require the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to take children's needs into account in the certification process, but the act was mainly intended to minimize risk, not promote development of treatments.

Drugs for kids, particularly babies, are not a straightforward issue. Children metabolize drugs differently from adults. When combination drugs are put together, for example to deal with HIV-AIDS, the proportions have to be changed relative to those for grown-ups, and the resulting drugs can be several times more expensive since they are harder to make. WHO has managed to identify a dozen combination drugs to help children fights malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV-AIDS.

WHO wants the proposed new fund to pay for basic research on children's formulations. The initial focus will be on a small cluster of diseases that are the most lethal to under-fives, including HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and various forms of diarrhoea. The biggest problems are in poor countries, but the problem with a lack of child-friendly drugs is also an issue in rich countries. In Europe, less than half the drugs administered for children have actually been qualified for that use, and there are some classes of problems for children where there are no properly qualified drugs at all.

One of the problems with developing drugs for children is that it is difficult to perform clinical trials, since children in general and babies in particular can't give "informed consent", and those involved feel uneasy about getting it from parents. There is also uneasiness about trials because of the risks, but of course there is the bigger risk of not getting useful drugs to children and worse, doing a dangerously bad job of giving them drugs not intended for them. Right now, workers and parents are being forced to estimate fractions of drugs for children, with the risk of either administering too much or too little, and have had to resort to crushing drugs and mixing them with sugar to get kids to take them -- a laborious and inexact process.

WHO hopes that the funds obtained for the new effort will help lower the risks of developing children's drugs, and also encourage firms to invest more of their own money in the effort. WHO is currently providing gentle encouragement to companies to deal with the most pressing needs, for example to deal with the lack of modern anti-malarial drugs for children. The organization may have one available sometime in 2008. No adequate drug to deal with tuberculosis exists yet, either, and so that's the next item on the list.

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[TUE 18 DEC 07] CHINA CLONES REVISITED

* CHINA CLONES REVISITED: Chinese product counterfeiting was discussed here last month; THE ECONOMIST also ran an article on the subject ("Mind Games", 10 November 2007) that focused more on the politics instead of the technology.

Welcome to the Wo Lu City shopping mall in Shenzhen, just outside Hong Kong. Once upon a time, Wo Lu City was a product piracy heaven, crammed full of counterfeit products bearing designer labels. Now the pirate products have disappeared from store windows, and police patrol the malls to make sure they don't come back. Alas, just because the counterfeits aren't in the windows doesn't mean for an instant that they have gone away. Wo Lu City's pushy salesmen all but grab shoppers and drag them into stores, where they then reveal piles of counterfeit products hidden behind a drapery. Piracy isn't as blatant any more, but otherwise nothing much has changed.

That's the story in China overall: attempts to fix things, with limited results. A poll of multinational companies showed that only 28% believed things had got better in China. Slightly more thought they had got worse, and the rest simply thought it was business as usual -- which from their point of view means dreadful. Some industries seem to be happier than others, particularly the pharmaceutical industry, since there have been raids in which large amounts of fake drugs have been seized. The authorities were particularly appalled at the deaths caused by fake drugs and have them as a high priority target. Even when the fake drugs are harmless, patients who are in serious need of proper drugs are still at risk.

Mobile-phone companies find the authorities seem to be sincere about cracking down, pointing raids that confiscated the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars of fake phones and sent product pirates to jail. However, in fact even government statistics say the number of intellectual property cases in China fell by 35% from 2005 and 2006. The investigations are conducted by appropriate government agencies whose powers are very limited, and when arrests are made, they are usually of small fry. Plaintiffs have to negotiate a bureaucratic obstacle course to get action in the first place.

Local officials are not too worried about the problem, since counterfeiting creates jobs, and there is little interest in dealing with music CD and movie DVD piracy since such products don't pose a health or safety problem. The irony is that, while the Chinese government has a small army of censors and informers trying to block Chinese citizens from reaching disapproved websites in the outside world, pirated music and movies leak out as through a sieve.

Senior government leadership does find the situation embarrassing, and as Chinese industry becomes more sophisticated, the drawbacks of piracy become more apparent. Criminal activities that might once have been winked at become less tolerable as more groups realize they are being ripped off themselves; Chinese producers of music and video are being undercut by the flood of cheap pirates, and technical innovation by Chinese companies is stifled by the lack of effective patent protection. Although Western companies make the loudest noises about Chinese product piracy, Chinese firms could benefit from tougher enforcement as well. One encouraging sign is that Chinese consumers are starting to turn away from ripoffs, preferring to buy the real thing. It costs more, but it generally works a lot better, and when something goes wrong they actually have someone to complain to.

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[MON 17 DEC 07] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (10)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (10): After reaching the Orlando Magic Kingdom site on the afternoon of Wednesday, 18 September, the first attraction on my list was the SPACE MOUNTAIN roller coaster, which is a small indoor coaster in a dark space-oriented environment. It was one of my favorite rides, but it didn't seem as interesting as before -- was the Orlando version less developed than the California version? It seemed so, but I couldn't judge for sure.

Then I went to STITCH'S GREAT ESCAPE, which was an update of the old ALIEN ADVENTURES attraction I'd seen there in 1998. The original involved the audience involved with the teleportation of a vicious alien; the new version was just the same, but with Stitch, the powerful and prankish alien of the movie LILO & STITCH, inserted in its place and the script modified appropriately. It went over flat. It seems that theme-park attractions are based on novelty and the novelty quickly wears thin.

The day seemed to be unraveling, and I was feeling increasing lousy from the residual effects of my morning ride on MISSION: SPACE. Following the recommendations of the guidebook I read, I did ride SPLASH MOUNTAIN, a flume ride based on the old Brer Rabbit / SONG OF THE SOUTH stories. It turned out to be badly dated, to the point of being a cheesy historical curiosity; the novelty of this item had worn away a long, long time ago. The guidebook had also recommended the BIG THUNDER MOUNTAIN coaster, which was OK, though also dated. As coasters go, it did have the minor distinction of having twin lift-chain hills.

I was not feeling at all well by the time I got off, but I wanted to at least check out the HAUNTED MANSION, another attraction recommended by the guidebook. It had been improved by new technology, but it was still a dated ride. It was clearly getting time to leave, though I did want to check out the modernized PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON TREEHOUSE before I called it quits. Alas, at about 3:00 PM Disney puts on a parade, and trying to get across the park to those attractions proved impossible. I was very feeling poorly and I was just not in the spirit of the exercise, so I went through the Disney transport system to the Disney-MGM parking lot and left.

It was good that I left when I did, because my head was starting to feel like it was about to explode. I made my way back to the motel and by that time the nausea was surging over me in waves. I was really sick; I knew that not having eaten all day wasn't helping, but there was no way I could hold anything solid down. I did drink a liter bottle of cherry cola just to get my blood sugar back up; I was so ill by that time, about 6:00 PM, that I was about to get the shakes, so I kicked off my shoes and curled up under the bedcovers without even bothering to undress.

I thought: I'm in such misery, there's no way I'll get to sleep. The next thing I knew it was 9:00 PM -- I had mercifully gone out like a light. Much to my surprise I felt, if not good, at least functional. I wasn't all that enthusiastic about eating dinner, but I knew if I didn't I would probably be a wreck all the next day, so I put on my shoes and left the hotel room to get a meal. On recollection I halfway wish someone had said: "You look like you've slept in those clothes." I would have been able to reply: "Actually, I have." [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 14 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (3)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (3): The most familiar of of large bridges styles is the suspension bridge. It's similar to the cantilever bridge, but instead of having a trusswork structure supporting the roadbed, large cables are strung over the towers, with the cables held by heavy anchorages at the ends. Smaller "stays" are strung down from the main support cables to hold up the roadbed. Each main cable is made up of a bundle of smaller cables, about as thick as a pencil.

The main virtue of the suspension bridge is that it supports a very long span of very light weight; it is also a very aesthetically pleasing design. A designer would almost have to be deliberately working at it to build a ugly suspension bridge. They were the preferred format for very long bridges through much of the 20th century, but the designers pushed their quest for lightness in the structure of suspension bridges to an excess, resulting in the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state in 1940. The designer did not understand the impact of aerodynamics on the bridge, and in high winds the bridge encountered a mechanical "resonance", an oscillation that built up until it tore the bridge apart. Bridge builders didn't really understand this concept at the time, and the particular designer was simply the unlucky first one to come to grief over it. Other major suspension bridges were hastily reinforced in its aftermath.

The Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco and the Verrazano Narrows bridge in New York City, both suspension bridges, are among the most famous and elegant suspension bridges in the world. However, although each was the world's longest bridge in their day, they have been surpassed by bridges elsewhere -- currently the longest, with a center span of 1,990 meters (6,529 feet), is the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan, which connects the main Japanese island of Honshu with the island of Shikoku to the south.

* The cable-stay bridge can be confused with a suspension bridge, but it's a different beast -- it has support cables strung down from the towers to the roadbed instead of support cables suspended from cable strung over the tops of the towers. It does not need anchorages, but it does suffer from a scaling problem: the longer the span, the more shallow the angle of the cable supports and the less effective they are, demanding a larger tower. However, the economics of building cable-stay bridge has much improved in modern times, and they're used for increasingly long spans. The fact that most find them pretty doesn't hurt, either.

cable-stay bridge

Some cable-stay bridges only have a single tower, with the support cables running down the middle of the roadbed, between the traffic lanes -- resulting in an even lighter and more elegant design. Interestingly, although the Brooklyn Bridge is regarded as a classic suspension bridge, a closer examination shows that it's a hybrid of a suspension of a cable-stay bridge design -- each tower supports an array of auxiliary cable stays to help hold up the roadbed. Apparently its designer, John Roebling, was a "belt and braces" engineer. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 13 DEC 07] OPEN-SOURCE INSURGENCY

* OPEN-SOURCE INSURGENCY: As discussed in an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("Open-Source Warfare" by Robert N. Charette, November 2007), before the US military went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, work towards modernization had focused on exploiting the latest high-tech to create a very "smart", network-enabled, digitally wired fighting force. To no surprise in hindsight, the US military's adversaries, in the form of Islamic insurgents, have proven just as interested in obtaining an edge from the same sorts of technologies. The high-tech rivalry between the US military and the insurgents has some interesting parallels to the rivalry between powerful tech companies, particularly Microsoft, and the network of rivals loosely joined together under the banner of "open-source software".

For a snapshot of what this means in practice, on 8 April 2004, US troops used a small robot, known as a "Packbot", to search for "improvised explosive devices (IEDs)" set up by insurgents. It found one, which completely wrecked the Packbot when it went off. The Packbot had actually worked as specified, since it was far preferable to lose a robot than a soldier -- but the fact remained that a gadget costing about $100,000 USD had been destroyed by an IED made with a few dollars' worth of explosives and fitted with a detonator made from a cellphone, garage-door opener, or even a remote control for a toy. Welcome to "open-source warfare".

To be sure, warfare between a large formal military organization and local insurgencies has always been "asymmetric", with the military organization equipped with weapons obtained through a bureaucratic development and acquisition process, while the insurgents make do with what they can scrape up. A formal military organization is around for the long term and may have to deal with a range of challenges; soldiers need the best weapons they can get, and such weapons have to be robust, easy to use, and standardized. Insurgents will fight with any halfway usable piece of junk they can get their hands on, and they don't worry overmuch about standards, consistency, and production quality -- if it works, that's good enough. Furthermore, insurgents only fight on their own terms, often preferring to strike at "soft" infrastructure targets in pursuit of political ends, while a formal military organization is driven to operate on a "search and destroy" basis to root out the insurgents.

The asymmetry is inevitable, but the rules of this game give the insurgent a certain edge, and given the widespread availability of cheap high-tech, some military analysts and counterterrorism experts believe that in the 21st century that edge provides insurgents with a disproportionate amount of clout. John Robb, a counterterrorism expert and author of the recent book BRAVE NEW WAR, comments: "What we are seeing is the empowerment of the individual to conduct war." Robb believes that insurgents now can obtain powerful resources through the internet or the local RadioShack. They can get satellite imagery on Google Earth, create videos for distribution on the internet, obtain hints on how to make IEDs and the like from website, and use public-domain encryption to protect their communications.

Robb is a particular believer in the reality of open-source warfare, pointing out that, like the open-source software community, insurgents tend to form loosely-knit, decentralized networks linked by internet communications. That makes them hard to pin down, hard to destroy. They are also quick to adapt, with a US Army general stating at a recent conference on IEDs: "For every move we make, the enemy makes three. The enemy changes techniques, tactics, and procedures every two to three weeks. Our biggest task is staying current and relevant."

Standard defense acquisition programs cannot come close to matching the rapid technology cycles of insurgent tech. In a typical weapons procurement cycle, a military service has to take the time to write up a careful specification for the weapon, pass it out to defense contractors for bids, run the bids through a scrupulous selection process, award a contract to the winner, run through a development program for the weapon, and then test it thoroughly before it goes into production and out into combat. To make matters worse, although the military has its share of bright people, military organizations tend to be slow-moving and bureaucratic to begin with.

Consider the US Air Force's premium fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which finally entered service in 2005 -- 25 years after issue of the initial specification. It is certainly an impressive weapon, a stealthy "fourth generation" jet fighter that can cruise at supersonic speeds and is fitted with awesomely sophisticated electronics. That it took so long to get out the door is not too surprising in hindsight, not merely because it is so complex, but because the requirement for which it had been originally intended, the threat of the development of comparable Soviet fourth-generation fighters, didn't materialize. The design cycles of other Western fourth-generation fighters -- the European Typhoon, the French Rafale, and the Swedish Gripen -- were about as protracted as that of the F-22.

The expensive F-22 -- with a cost currently given at about $138 million USD per aircraft -- seems like a poor match for insurgent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In its defense, it wasn't designed to fight such wars, the underlying rationale being that the Air Force didn't like the idea of finding out a high-tech adversary had a superior fighter that could clean American combat jets out of the sky. USAF brass wanted to make sure the service had leading-edge technology to prevent that from happening. That particular logic remains valid now, but having a weapon to fight a future war still leaves the question open of what weapons we need to fight a war in the here and now.

* Those who push the threat of open-source warfare like to refer to Eric S. Raymond's 1997 book, THE CATHEDRAL AND THE BAZAAR, in which Raymond documented the creation of the Linux operating system by the open-source software community. He compared the environment that created Linux to the public marketplace of the bazaar, with the programmers agreeing to observe a few simple principles while remaining free to innovate and create. Raymond contrasted that with the "cathedral" approach to software design followed by large organizations such as Microsoft, in which software was put together on a scheduled, structured plan, under tight management control. Raymond's conclusion was that the inflexible "cathedral" system was no match for the flexible "bazaar" system.

John Robb noticed that modern insurgencies, as well as organized-crime networks, are organized on open-source "bazaar" lines. Al-Qaeda is the most interesting example. It has traditional ancestors, like the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but it's not state-sponsored; it has informal means of funding, including donations and black-market commerce; and although it has influential members, it has no controlling central authority. Its members tend to be well educated, and familiar both with modern technology and media.

Iraqi insurgent groups are very internet-savvy, using websites to get their message out. They will post videos and descriptions of attacks within hours of carrying them out. Al-Qaeda produces slick video and audio productions, offering them in various formats so they can be viewed on anything from a widescreen TV to a cellphone. The number of websites known to be linked to terrorists only numbered about a dozen in 1997; in 2006, the number was estimated at over 5,000. It is true that most of these sites, just as with any category of website, are junk, but there are still about a hundred that mean business and are monitored by Western counterterrorism organizations.

The terrorist websites are not only propaganda organs, but are also useful in spreading around knowledge, resulting in the rapid learning cycles observed in Iraq. Such information includes training on how to rig car bombs, use poisons, forge documents, and so on. To be sure, once again there's a lot of worthless junk on internet websites and the terrorist sites are no exception to this rule, and some things, such as becoming proficient with a light machine gun, can only really be learned from experience. All that said, there's still plenty of information useful to terrorists floating around in cyberspace, and they are making effective use of it.

Of course, to translate information into action requires resources that can't be printed out from a website, but the internet also provides easy access to cheap, off-the-shelf materials that can be converted into weapon systems. In fact, if someone knows what to look for, such materials can often simply be picked up at an ordinary store. The liquid explosives used in the 2006 plot to attack airliners were synthesized from common chemicals.

* The Iraq insurgency is the test case for open-source war, with the weapon of choice being the IED. The insurgents started out simple, building mines from old mortar shells, and have evolved continuously to the development of shaped-charge devices that can penetrate the armor of a main battle tank. As US forces have become more expert at spotting roadside bombs, the insurgents have increasingly turned to booby-trapping houses. Says one counterterrorism expert: "Nothing they're doing is going to win any prizes from the Department of Defense for high tech, but the stuff is deadly. They're using a huge variety of cheaply available stuff." The latest gimmick is to use battery-powered wireless doorbell units as detonators. They're crude, but very difficult to jam.

The military has been lagging behind the learning curve. Early unarmored Humvee trucks were soft targets for the insurgents; armored Humvees were better but still far from satisfactory. In early 2007, the Pentagon decided to invest billions in "mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP)" vehicles, which are big armored trucks with a raised chassis and a boatlike hull to deflect mine blasts. They're not arriving fast enough, since it takes time to ramp up production, and the insurgents are determined to figure out a way to destroy them.

Military think-tanks are working hard to figure out ways to get ahead of the insurgents' learning curve. Traditional Pentagon procurement policies, with their long leadtimes, aren't really appropriate to the challenge of modern insurgent warfare. Actually, the military has long had "fast track" development offices, set up to get simple, cheap, off-the-shelf gear into service as quickly as possible. The "Army's Rapid Equipping Force (REF)" hunts around for off-the-shelf solutions to problems and is empowered to get them out to the troops directly. REF personnel can actually make small purchases, up to a few thousand dollars, using an organization credit card, with a minimum of follow-up paperwork.

One gimmick provided by the REF to soldiers in Iraq are Taiwanese green laser pens. They are used by soldiers at checkpoints to signal drivers to stop. Previously, troops had tried to use warning shots, but for good reasons Iraqis tend to assume they are in danger when somebody starts shooting and the results could be fatal mistakes. A more interesting tool, an industrial-grade leaf blower, was obtained from a firm in New York state. The leaf blower is attached to the front of a truck leading a convoy to literally "blow away" suspicious piles of trash or the like that might conceal a mine.

The Army has also set up a "Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI)" to streamline traditional procurement, with RFI getting such useful items to the field as the improved "Advanced Combat Helmet" and a new first-aid kit tuned to the types of injuries being seen in Iraq. Weapons needed for Iraq have been put on fast-track development, for example a "thermobaric" (thermal blast) warhead developed for the Hellfire antitank missile in only 60 days.

The US military has been particularly interested in robots. The PackBot was mentioned above, but there are other types in service, with about 3,000 small ground robots deployed so far to Iraq and Afghanistan. Drone aircraft are also in widespread combat use. Ground troops have their own little hand-launched drones that they can use to figure out what the black hats around the corner are up to -- incidentally, the troops find them great fun.

Soldiers can also get help from Predator drones that can loiter for hours at altitudes high enough to be out of sight, while keeping an "angel's eye view" on the battlefield. The Air Force is now fielding an improved Predator, the "Reaper", with a turboprop engine instead of a piston engine. While the Predator can carry a pair of missiles to deal with targets that might get away before a strike can be called in, it is primarily a surveillance platform. The Reaper, in contrast, is primarily a "shooter": it can carry a hefty warload and is able to loiter over the fighting for hours, dropping on call a small smart weapon where it will do the black hats the least good.

MQ-9 Reaper

The military is trying to adopt more flexible thinking at a higher level as well. For example, the US Air Force's Space Vehicle Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base is working on a project to design "plug and play" satellites that could be put together and launched within a week of a field request. The military does realize the need to improve compatibility and interoperability in combat gear.

At the other end of the spectrum, the level of the grunt on patrol, soldiers have always been ingenious at coming up with off-the-books fixes to problems, "garage and junkyard tech", for example cobbling together armor for Humvees. Troops in Iraq make use of the internet themselves, trading ideas just as the insurgents do, and providing their own public information -- writing blogs to keep the folks back home educated. The military has had concerns about GI blogs over security and organizational image, but also needs to encourage and assist the troops to make use of the tools available.

* Critics find all this a good thing, but don't believe enough is made of fast-track defense acquisition, and also see classic gold plate creeping into the process. A four-drone system of Reapers, including ground systems, costs about $70 million -- cheap compared to an F-22 but still not pocket change. The critics worry that when this current round of fighting dies down, the US military will go back to business as usual, and will be caught even more unprepared for the next round. Given the current global social and political climate, it's a sure bet there will be a next round.

Some defense experts roll their eyes at the open-source warfare crowd, seeing them as putting a trendy technospin on things that aren't really anything new. As noted, insurgent warfare has always been asymmetric, and the cheap and dirty methods of an insurgent are generally useless for a formal military organization. With 21st-century high tech it shouldn't have been a surprise that both sides in the struggle have access to better tools. In addition, although the tools available to the insurgents are sophisticated, they are also limited, not remotely in a league with proper military hightech. It may be nice to get satellite imagery off Google Earth, but it's also coarse resolution and usually several months or even years old, not revealing the latest defenses of a targeted installation. Military special program offices to get off-the-shelf tech into the hands of the troops have been around for a long time, and the troops have always been good at improvisation themselves.

However, even these experts admit that the problem keeping up with insurgent technology is real -- that though their methods may be crude they can also be devastatingly effective. There is absolutely no disagreement on the importance of doing a better job. As US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates put it recently: "We have to look outside the normal bureaucratic way of doing things. For every month we delay, scores of young Americans are going to die."

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[WED 12 DEC 07] THE LONG FADE-OUT

* THE LONG FADE-OUT: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ran an interesting article titled "An Earth Without People" in the July 2007 issue that interviewed Alan Weisman, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona who has recently published a book titled THE WORLD WITHOUT PEOPLE. The premise of the book is to consider what changes the Earth would go through if all the people abruptly disappeared and all the power was shut down. This TWILIGHT ZONE scenario was not presented just for its eeriness; Weisman wanted to demonstrate the human impact on the Earth's environment by showing what would happen if that element were suddenly yanked out.

Weisman focused on a desolated New York City as his example. He recalled talking to city engineers who pointed out that the city's imposing skyscrapers and other big buildings are actually basically fragile structures; they would deteriorate very quickly if they were not continuously monitored and maintained. Manhattan Island also has a very active groundwater system, and so, below the street level, water has to be pumped out continuously.

the deserted Earth

Two days after the disappearance event, with all the pumps shut down, the subways and other underground spaces fill with water, with corrosion beginning to eat away at building supports. Within a week, nuclear reactors in the region and elsewhere would either go into automatic shutdown or, if they were poorly designed, go into meltdown. In most cases, the containment vessels would be able to prevent the escape of the radiation. Ultimately, the breakdown of the containment vessels, and the corrosion of nuclear warheads, will release radiation, forming environmental hot spots.

In a year, freezing and thawing starts to crumble buildings and break up the streets, and over the next few years, weeds, then trees -- oaks, maples, the invasive Chinese ailanthus -- tears apart the streets. Lightning strikes during dry summers set fires that burn out large parts of the city. Within a few decades, streams and marshes run through the city, supporting a diversity of wildlife. Deer and coyotes, common in suburban fringes before the event, are well in evidence; large predators like wolves and cougars are making a comeback, though domestic cattle and dogs are long gone. Wildcats prowl the night again, with some competition from domesticated cats, though though runty cats and the persians were weeded out. Rats and cockroaches, surprisingly, didn't do well, since they were dependent on humans for heated habitation and food; rats became coyote food and generally disappeared.

Within a century, New York City is wilderness again, marked only by the fragmentary skeletons of the sturdier structures. The suspension bridges may survive that long, but they fall within another century or two; the arch bridges hold out longer. In 15,000 years, a new era of glaciation grinds away what little is left of New York City's buildings. In 100,000 years, a blink of an eye in geological terms, there is little visible evidence that human beings were ever on the planet. Sic transit gloria mundi.

If another intelligent species arises in a few tens of millions of years -- possibly derived from baboons? -- its members would quickly learn they weren't the first ones here, discovering buried artifacts such as corrosion-resistant bronze sculptures, stainless-steel cutlery, and plastic items; they might also find a fair number of human fossils. What would the newcomers make of the mysterious "Old Ones" who had covered the Earth, and then simply disappeared?

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[TUE 11 DEC 07] GOING GOING GITMO

* GOING GOING GITMO: One of the things that made the Bush II Administration unpopular at home and abroad was the imprisonment of suspected Islamic terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base ("Gitmo") in Cuba, where they were not only deprived of normal due process of law, but were also run through intensive interrogations that, despite denials by administration officials, were widely regarded as simple torture.

According to THE ECONOMIST ("Bay Watch", 17 November 2007), things are much different now. The infamous "Camp X-Ray", the source of stories of rough treatment, has been abandoned for a long time. Inmates are now in an air-conditioned facility, with proper sanitary facilities in each cell; eat halal meals three times a day; are each provided a Koran and are allowed to pray five times a day, under the direction of a group-selected imam; and are allowed to exercise for two hours a day. And those are the uncooperative prisoners -- those judged "compliant" can socially mingle for most of the day, play ping-pong and volleyball, and have access to a library of 5,000 books and videos. Most have access to a lawyer. The US military claims that though the prisoners are questioned, they are not coerced into giving answers; although it's hard to check on the truth of that, Red Cross visitors on inspections to Gitmo agree that things are far different than they were in the bad old days.

The Gitmo imprisonments are clearly on the way out in any case. About half of the inmates have already been sent back home. The US Supreme Court will rule in June 2008 on whether Gitmo inmates have a right to legally challenge their imprisonment. Most of the Bush II Administration officials who had backed the operation -- Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and John Ashcroft -- have left for greener pastures. Vice-President Dick Cheney is still fighting for it, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked his people for proposals on how to phase it out. Michael Mukasey, the new attorney-general, says he wants to shut it down "because it's hurting us".

The general idea is that the least dangerous inmates at Gitmo should be sent home, while the others would be placed in stateside military prison facilities under a "preventive detention" scheme for suspected terrorists. Special Federal courts, operating under rules to protect military secrecy, would handle challenges by inmates to their detention, and the military would have to abide by the decisions of the courts. Whether the Supreme Court will buy such a plan or not remains to be seen. Gitmo was such an embarrassment to the USA that it is a good bet the next administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will shut it down anyway; but it would be a credit to the Bush II Administration to tie up its own loose ends.

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[MON 10 DEC 07] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (9)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (9): Wednesday, 18 September, was my first stop at Disney World, with my schedule indicating that I would cover EPCOT and Disney-MGM. The day wouldn't actually go quite as planned. I suppose that I should have been forewarned when I woke up to hear the rain pouring down heavily that morning. It didn't seem to want to stop, either, which I got the impression was a bit unusual for central Florida -- the previous days had featured occasional cloudbursts and then went dry.

I went to the Wal-Mart, thinking I would get a cheap poncho to keep more or less dry, but I figured after looking them over to buy a reasonable rain jacket -- it was on the expensive side, at least by Wal-Mart standards, but I'd been needing a good rain jacket for a while anyway. That done, I cruised out to Disney World to park outside of Disney-MGM Studios. Incidentally, a parking chit at Disney World is good all day, at all the parking lots, making it easy to shuttle around if one would prefer to bypass Disney internal transportation. Getting around is a challenge -- the entire site is twice the size of Manhattan Island.

I went in through the Disney-MGM gate when it opened, but I was planning to go to the EPCOT park first and then work my way back and I was just lining up transport. I knew Disney had water shuttles on the flanking lakes between Disney-MGM, the nearby Dolphin-Swan hotel complex, and then EPCOT, and I was interested in taking the water shuttle. Partly I wanted to stop at the Dolphin-Swan complex and get some shots of the Fantasia miniature golf course there.

I ended up having to go back outside the Disney-MGM gate and wait at a dock. As it turned out, the "water buses" were the slow way to get around -- I could have walked about as fast, though I would have worn myself out. However, it was still worth taking the time, since it was definitely an impressive tour. I got ashore at the Dolphin-Swan complex, with the Dolphin hotel (with its huge dolphin adornments) facing the Swan hotel (with its huge swan adornments) across a large courtyard. I went into the lobbies and got shots of the fountains in each, using furniture and the like as tripods so I could take long exposures. The Fantasia miniature golf course was in the rear and it turned out to be closed for refurbishment, but from what I saw of it, it seemed no great loss to miss it -- it was just a small golf course adorned with statuary of characters from the old FANTASIA movie. The impressive, if slightly kitschy, Swan-Dolphin hotels still made the stop worthwhile.

On returning to the water bus to go to EPCOT, I cruised down through a lake flanked by the Boardwalk Villas (and associated shops) on one side and the Yacht Club hotel on the other. I understand that there are tens of thousands of hotel rooms in the Disney World complex; cruising down that lake gave me a sense of the sheer scale of the operation, as well as of its storybook tidiness. As it turned out, this was the most profitable thing I did all day.

* When I got to EPCOT I walked down towards the main entrance, getting sidetracked listing to a performance by a trashcan-drum trio named THE JAMITORS. Disney keeps troupes of entertainers moving around the grounds, putting on a series of performances during the day, and the JAMITORS drew a crowd -- well worth the time to stop. They moved on after their performance and I went over to the GM TEST TRACK ride. I had notice it on my 1998 visit but didn't see it as all that interesting, since it looked like riding a giant slot-car racer. However, the guide book I picked up praised it. It proved mildly amusing, with the riders performing simulations of rough-road tests, skids, hot and cold tests, high-speed driving, and so on -- but it really was like riding a giant slot-car racer.

The big attraction was MISSION: SPACE, a simulation of a mission to Mars. I made a beeline over to it, and that's where my troubles began. I had read in my guide book that the simulation involved a centrifuge, though riders could pick a less aggressive version if they liked. I was feeling energetic and curious, so of course I picked the centrifuge version, though I had no clear idea of what it involved.

Disney MISSION SPACE

They packed the riders three in a cramped simulator capsule and then shut it closed. The spacecraft being used for the flight featured a high-acceleration engine, and during the trip to Mars there were periods of time when it would undergo bursts of thrust -- they'd rev up the centrifuge and we'd be pulling gees. I never had an experience like it before -- I'd try to lift my hands and felt like I had lead weights on their backs. I think I was pulling about two gees, continuous. That wasn't a real problem, but I could also subtly tell I was spinning. I'm hard-pressed to describe it, sort of an odd sideways blurred feeling. It wasn't pleasant.

When the ride was over I was impressed, but I didn't feel so good. I still wanted to see more, but as I went around I realized that there wasn't much else at EPCOT I wanted to see. I'd seen a number of the other attractions in 1998 and not been impressed then, no reason to try them again. I did want to catch the SOARIN' simulation ride, which I'd seen at California Disney that previous May as SOARIN' OVER CALIFORNIA and been very impressed, but it was a long wait, and so I made my way to THE LIVING SEA exhibit.

This is an aquarium with some theme-park attractions. After Sea World's JEWELS OF THE SEA the aquarium seemed an also-ran, and the attractions turned out to be negligible. One involved sitting on a moving conveyor that took visitors past roboticized scenes from FINDING NEMO, and after I was done I wondered if I'd just seen something. The other was TURTLE TALK WITH CRUSH, which involved interaction with an actor-controlled animation of the extreme-sports-dude sea turtle Crush from FINDING NEMO. After waiting in line for a while, it turned out (to no surprise in hindsight) to be closely tailored for small kids, not too conceptually different from a visit to Santa, and I ended up walking out. Actually, it turned out waiting in line was more profitable, since I got some great shots of moon jellyfish in a tank in the atrium, using a post as a tripod to take flashless shots.

Anyway, by the time I left that I had the feeling I'd exhausted the possibilities of EPCOT ahead of schedule. I got to thinking that I didn't have a big agenda at the Disney Magic Kingdom, either -- although I planned to visit the next day, why not knock it off now and reserve more time for Disney Animal Kingdom then? I got on the monorail to the Ticket & Transport Center, then transferred to the monorail to the Magic Kingdom.

As it would turn out, this was a wiser change in plans than I realized at the time. Incidentally, whenever I presented my ticket at an attraction, I had to have the fingerprint on my index finger scanned, obviously to prevent people from doing things like buying cut-rate long-term tickets and then sharing them with friends. Most or all the theme parks used the same technology. I recently saw a news report where the same technology is used in Germany as an alternative to a charge card. The users set up a charge account keyed to a fingerprint instead of plastic. Secure? More than plastic. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 07 DEC 07] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (2)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (2): Truss bridges can extend the span of a bridge, but they have an inherent scaling problem: the longer the span between piers, the more trusswork needed to keep it from collapsing, but the increased trusswork makes the span heavier and in more danger of collapsing. One way around this problem is the "cantilever bridge", in which a truss arrangement strung from support towers on each end holds up the roadbed.

Since the cantilever bridge uses trusswork, what's the difference between it and a truss bridge? The visible difference is that a truss bridge does not generally have towers and is either uniformly thick, or thickest in the middle of the span -- while a cantilever bridge does have towers, and gets thinner towards the middle of the span. In a truss bridge, the truss transmits compression forces straight down through the supports. In a cantilever bridge, the trusswork transmits load forces in tension to the support towers as if they were giants with long arms outstretched. Cantilever bridges tend towards the heavy and inelegant in appearance.

cantilever bridge, Baton Rouge

* The concept of an arch bridge was mentioned in conjunction with the Whipple bowstring truss. An arch bridge is, however, generally a different beast from the truss bridge. It allows an increase in span by transmitting the load forces down an arch to the ends of the arch; it works in compression, which means it can be made of stone, and stone arch bridges have been around for a long time.

The problem with an arch bridge is that it transmits horizontal forces to its ends, which means it has to be solidly anchored on each end. It also can be tricky to build since it doesn't really work structurally until it's complete, a real problem with a stone arch bridge -- they required elaborate scaffolding during construction. The introduction of cheap steel meant arch bridges no longer had to be made of stone, and it also reduced the need for abutments -- the ends of the arch could be tied along the bottom of the bridge, usually by the roadbed, like the bowstring of an archer's bow. This configuration is known as the "tied arch". Arch bridges are still popular, with the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia being one of the most famous modern examples. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 06 DEC 07] MYSTERY STONES

* MYSTERY STONES: As reported by an article on BBC WORLD Online ("A Strange Landscape Explained By Freezing And Thawing" by David Whitehouse), researchers have finally come up with an explanation for one of nature's strange little puzzles: the neat arrays of rocks that cover the ground in parts of Alaska and the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. They come in tidy circles, polygons, clusters of stones, and so on.

Elsewhere in the far north, stones also form mysterious striking patterns on the ground. According to scientists, the patterns are not the result of ancient art or alien visitors but due to cyclic freezing and thawing of the ground that drives a simple feedback mechanism to generate the patterns. "The patterns form by self-organization, and the same fundamental processes are at work in the formation of all these different patterns," says Mark Kessler of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In an article published in the prominent journal AAAS SCIENCE, Kessler described a model he constructed based on a geological process known as "sorted patterned ground." Kessler says: "When you run the model on a computer, you can see the evolution of the pattern over time, and you can also see how small changes in key parameters result in a transition from one pattern to another."

The patterns arise from the interaction of two mechanisms: "lateral sorting", which moves soil towards areas of high soil concentration and stones toward areas of high stone concentration; and squeezing of stone domains, which causes stones to move within linear piles of stones and lengthens these lines of stones. The relative strength of lateral sorting and squeezing, coupled to the slope of the ground and the density of stones in the soil, determine the particular pattern that emerges. The underlying force beneath the phenomenon is "frost heave", the expansion of fine-grained soils when they freeze.

The patterns obtained on the computer matched those picked up on low-altitude aerial photographs taken in Alaska. Kessler thinks that the phenomenon remained unexplained for so long because it only occurs in cold, uninhabited regions. "If these patterns were on the ground around here, I think we would have figured them out a long time ago. These landscapes are so amazing, it's the kind of thing that really calls out for an explanation."

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[WED 05 DEC 07] BITE OF THE SABERCAT

* BITE OF THE SABERCAT: One of the more interesting extinct creatures of the relatively recent past is the sabretooth cat, a powerful beast with monster fangs. According to an article on BBC WORLD Online ("Sabretooth's Surprising Weak Bite" by Jonathan Amos), a group of Australian researchers has discovered that its bite, though impressive, had its limitations.

Dr. Colin McHenry and Dr. Steven Wroe of the University of Newcastle in Callaghan developed a "finite element model (FEM)" of the skull of the North American sabercat known as Smilodon fatalis. A FEM is a digital model used in engineering design and simulation. CT X-ray scans were taken of the skull, with the data used to generate the FEM. The simulation was then loaded with forces to see how the skull, jaw, teeth, and muscles would have operated in practice. A model of a modern lion was developed as a control.

sabre-tooth cat

The main purpose of the exercise was to determine exactly what the sabercat did with its oversized fangs. Since there are no beasts around any more with such monster teeth, nobody's exactly sure what the sabercat's hunting tactics were like. A lion or similar big cat usually latches on to the throat of a victim in a clamp-like bite and slowly asphyxiates it. This can take minutes, and the model showed that the sabercat simply didn't have the strength to do it.

In fact, the sabercat was not all that much like a modern big cat. According to McHenry: "The sabertooth was bear-like; it was massively strong -- huge forequarters, powerful limbs. It was not an animal that was built for running, it was built for wrestling other animals to the ground. I think it was using its huge limbs and thumb-claws to wrestle large animals to the ground, and then when it's got them there under control, that's when the teeth come into play, and there's one instantly fatal bite to the neck, severing the airway and carotid arteries to the brain. Death is more or less instantaneous."

The computer model suggests that the sabercat had very strong neck muscles that allowed it to drive its fangs deep into a victim. Wroe commented: "The specialized morphology of Smilodon would have allowed it to kill big prey more efficiently, but it was massively over-engineered for the purposes of taking smaller prey. The more generalized and opportunistic lion can subsist on a wider range of prey when necessary, but for Smilodon, once the densities of its favored large prey dropped below critical levels, it was doomed."

ED: Interestingly, sabercats have a long and elaborate fossil history, but it seems that the "succession" of forms in the record are a bit misleading. Sabercats are a notion that keep emerging over and over again, to ultimately run into the same dead end of overspecialization. In fact, long ago there was a marsupial sabertooth in South America, much more closely related to the recently extinct Tasmanian wolf than any cat, and it ended up in the same dead end.

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[TUE 04 DEC 07] PIG POLLUTION

* I live on the outskirts of cattle country, and one of the drawbacks of doing so is that, on warm summer days, the odor carried in on the breeze from the cattle feedlot in Monfort out on the prairie can be unmistakeable and, unfortunately, unavoidable. I understand the turkey farms south down the road in Longmont are worse but I haven't had the pleasure.

According to a brief article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Hunt For The Odorless Pig", 24 November 2007), the problem of stinking livestock is not being ignored. About 450,000 of the USA 1.3 million livestock farms qualify as "confined feeding operations" -- for example, a poultry farm with more than 30,000 hens. About 19,000 are designated as "concentrated animal feeding operations", with more than 100,000 hens, 700 dairy cows, or 2,500 pigs.

From the 1970s, the huge farms have been regulated under the Clean Water Act's permit system for polluters. However, in 2006 a court decision forced the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit coverage, and so various states are stepping up to the plate to take over regulation of the farms. The main concern of regulation of livestock operations is to limit water pollution, but the stink is becoming a bigger issue as more suburban development expands into the countryside and bring folk into contact with the farms. They're starting to sue, not just because the stink is unpleasant, but because it can depress property values.

Livestock producers are not pretending the problem is going to go away if they ignore it, and are now paying for a national study of emissions. The study is being conducted by Purdue University in Indiana under EPA oversight. It's going well, though it has had its difficulties -- pigs in Missouri chewed through equipment cables, for example. A Purdue researcher named Albert Heber is investigating ways to reduce the stink, pursuing notions such as modification of animal diets, or use of biofiltration. To test his experiments, he uses graduate students to sniff samples of air stowed in bags. They can get $30 USD a session for it -- and they deserve it.

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[MON 03 DEC 07] STEAMPUNK LAPTOP

* STEAMPUNK LAPTOP: While tracing back hits on my website in hopes of finding something interesting -- a "steampunk" laptop computer.

Datamancer steampunk laptop

The term "steampunk", for those not familiar with it, essentially describes a genre of modern science fiction with tones of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, ultra high tech planted in the age of steam and clockwork. The term "gaslamp fantasy" is also used more or less as an alternative.

Anyway, Datamancer is the nom de cyber-guerre of Richard R. Nagy, who seems to intriguingly span the yawning gap between the "toolie" and "artsy-craftsy" communities. As a significant sample of his work, he had created a "steampunk laptop" based on an HP laptop PC, encased in stained pine with leather and brass trim, including 1890s-style brass feet. The lid of the PC is a glassed-in array of lovely brass gears that spin wildly, though they do nothing useful. The sense of detail is very impressive -- the PC keyboard keys are jazzed up to suggest something vaguely along the lines of an antique typewriter, brass chains are used to support the display when the laptop's opened, and there's a key that's plugged in to wind the thing up. There are violin-style holes for the speakers, and the laptop's LEDs shine through little fake plastic gems.

steampunk laptop with cover closed

There appears to be a growing community of artisans dedicated to translating steampunk ideas into (alternative) reality. The initial impression of something like Nagy's steampunk laptop is that he has too much time on his hands, but that leads to the next thought that we would all be worse off if there weren't ingenious and skilled people out there with too much time on their hands.

I later came across an article in the June 2007 issue of WIRED titled "Feeling Lucky, Steampunk?" that provided a photoshoot of future-as-antique sidearms, such as the hefty "Goliathon 83", with lines like a primitive revolver but intimidating zapgun features, and the "FMOM Industries Wave Disrupter", which is a 1930s pulp-fiction blaster with a few steampunk features added. All the guns are for sale, incidentally, by an outfit that makes props for movies and also sells them to collectors with money to burn; they make STAR TREK phasers and the like as well. The steampunk guns are shipped with a carefully contrived finish of rust and ground-in grime, as if they were a century old and reconditioned, and delivered in pitted carrying cases.

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