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DayVectors

jan 2008 / last mod jun 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: aviation infrastructure, Florida road trip. relationships among the cat family, materials harder than diamond, potential nanotech health hazards, US space exploration policy reconsidered, huge extinct rodent, free-space optical datalinks, changes in car sales, rivalry between the Bible & the Koran, the disastrous eruption of Laki in 1783, obtaining methane from depleted oil fields with bacteria, the organizational & financial challenge of developing video games, and the evolution of pygmies.

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[THU 31 JAN 08] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2008
[WED 30 JAN 08] CAT GENOME
[TUE 29 JAN 08] HARDER THAN DIAMOND
[MON 28 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (15)
[FRI 25 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (3)
[THU 24 JAN 08] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 23 JAN 08] NANOTECH MENACE?
[TUE 22 JAN 08] CHANGING TARGETS
[MON 21 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (14)
[FRI 18 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE - AVIATION (2)
[THU 17 JAN 08] RODENT ON STEROIDS
[WED 16 JAN 08] VATCHEN DAS BLINKEN LITES
[TUE 15 JAN 08] WHEEL & DEAL NO MORE
[MON 14 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (13)
[FRI 11 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (1)
[THU 10 JAN 08] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 09 JAN 08] SCRIPTURE SMACKDOWN
[TUE 08 JAN 08] YEAR OF THE FOG
[MON 07 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (12)
[FRI 04 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (6)
[THU 03 JAN 08] METHANE FROM OIL & BACTERIA
[WED 02 JAN 08] BETTING THE FARM ON VIDEO GAMES
[TUE 01 JAN 08] THE LITTLE PEOPLE

[THU 31 JAN 08] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2008

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2008: BBC WORLD TV ran a report generated by Beeb reporters who snuck into Zimbabwe, the BBC being otherwise banned. They were making optimistic noises about a challenge to Robert Mugabe in the elections coming up this March, but if Mugabe's competent at one thing, it's hanging on to power -- and, as a local activist put it, since Mugabe knows there's a chance he might end up facing "crimes against humanity" charges in The Hague, he has a double reason to hang on, lest he end up as Charles Taylor's cellmate.

The report also pointed out a scary thing about Mugabe's reduction of Zimbabwe, once a growing economy and an agricultural powerhouse, to a state of poverty and starvation. It would seem evidence of gross incompetence, but the report suggested it was entirely deliberate. When Mugabe ran into opposition, he deliberately wrecked the economy to make sure that the only way to survive in Zimbabwe was through government patronage, which could be withheld from those who were insufficiently obedient.

* Global economic bad news continues, with international stock markets on a roller-coaster ride that has been giving financiers and governments fits. While not welcome news, it was nothing we haven't seen before -- except for the incident of Jerome Kerviel, a 31-year-old trader working for the prominent French bank Societe General, who has been accused of losing 4.9 billion Euros ($7 billion USD) of the bank's money. It was later found out that he had actually staked ten times that amount -- more than the value of the bank.

The story seems confused. As it's being read now, Kerviel was a low-ranking trader in the employ of the bank who managed to make risky investments using the bank's money at a level far beyond that for which he was authorized. When the investments started going south, he invested more money to cover the losses -- and they went south, too. There were supposed to be safeguards to prevent such things from happening, but it seems that Kerviel had worked in the "backroom" in a monitoring capacity for some time and had a detailed understanding of the security system. Officials say the way he "hotwired" the system to get away with his unauthorized trades was extremely sophisticated.

Exactly what Kerviel was trying to do was unclear, since it didn't seem like he was making any money off of his deals. It is likely the full story will take months to sketch out and there will be some bloodshed along the way; French President Nicholas Sarkozy has strongly suggested that heads should roll. The French didn't invent the guillotine for nothing.

* In "world as a cartoon" news for January, BBC WORLD had a report on a bear named Voytek, who was adopted by Free Polish troops stationed in Iran in 1943. When the Poles were shipped to Italy, he was formally "enlisted", being given a name, rank, and serial number; he had a harness that allowed him to carry mortar rounds, and he participated in the battle of Monte Cassino. The Poles and Voytek were eventually billeted in Scotland. One of the Poles who remained in the UK remembered: "He was just like a dog -- nobody was scared of him. He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer ..." After the Poles were demobilized, Voytek, the "Soldier Bear", ended up in the Edinburgh zoo, where he died in 1963.

* It's the election season in the USA. One indication of political activity is more telephone spamming, a procedure I find exasperating. The way I look at it, if somebody's sending a prerecorded message to my answering machine, it's just two machines having a conversation with each other and no particular business of mine. I tend to turn a deaf ear to the candidates sniping at each other -- I expect it, it doesn't bother me much, but I have too much to do to waste time being a passive spectator to somebody else's quarrels.

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[WED 30 JAN 08] CAT GENOME

* CAT GENOME: Taxonomists, the biologists who classify the different species of organisms, tend to be quarrelsome, and not without reason because classifying plants, animals, and the like can be very difficult. They do agree that there are about 37 different species of cats, but they don't agree on how the different species are grouped into genera. At the skeletal level, all cats look pretty much alike aside from size: even an expert has trouble telling a lion skull from a tiger skull, despite the fact that nobody has any trouble telling a lion from a tiger in the flesh. The authors of an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Evolution Of Cats" by Stephen J. O'Brien and Warren E. Johnson, July 2007) report that they have finally nailed down the family tree of cats by analyzing 30 different genes in all the known species of cats.

tiger

Multiple genes have to be considered in such an analysis because the patterns of mutations for a particular gene are "noisy", giving a different evolutionary tree for each gene. A mutation that changes a gene in one generation may suffer a mutation in a later generation that changes the gene back to its original configuration, making it seem as though it was actually from an earlier generation; the same mutations may also coincidentally occur along two different lines of descent, giving the appearance of a relationship that isn't there. The odds of such events are of course low, and it's possible to weed them out by using a "majority vote" among evolutionary trees obtained from different sets of genes.

According to the article, the cats can be organized as follows, in order of how long ago a particular genus split off from the line of cat descent, the oldest first; this means the relatedness of two genera becomes smaller the farther they are from each other in the list:

There are some surprises in this list, for example the cheetah and cougar being closely related. It is also surprising that housecats are more closely related to cougars than they are to bobcats, and that the caracal and serval, which don't look much alike in coloration or features, are close cousins.

Cat fossils go back about 35 million years, but what paleontologists believe is the common ancestor of all living cats, Pseudaelurus, is only a bit more than 10 million years old. About nine million years ago, the ancestors of modern cats moved out of their birthplace in Asia to Africa and the Americas; a few million years ago, when sea levels dropped, their descendants moved back and forth between all these continents in a second wave of migration. Isolated Australia never saw cats until humans brought them in.

The domestic cat, having adopted its loose partnership with humans, now outnumbers all other cats combined, with global population numbering about 600 million. The lion may be called the king of beasts, but it's the housecats who really have conquered the world. Anyone who would claim they did it on our coattails would have to face the reality that cats have always seen us as their servants -- not the other way around.

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[TUE 29 JAN 08] HARDER THAN DIAMOND

* HARDER THAN DIAMOND: The word "diamond" immediately brings up vision of hardness and expense. The hardness of diamond makes it very useful for industrial cutting and grinding applications; its cost means that it would be dropped from industrial applications in a second if something cheaper could be found that could do the job.

According to an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("No-Pressure Diamond Scratchers" by Steven Ashley, July 2007), plenty of a research is being done to find a substitute. Diamond, as it turns out, also has another limitation besides its expense: it degrades when cutting steel or other ferrous metals, with carbon combining with the iron to form relatively soft iron carbides. Tools to cut steel use cubic boron nitride; it's almost as hard as diamond -- capable of tolerating pressures of 40 to 50 gigapascals (GPa), compared to 70 to 100 GPa for diamond. Unfortunately, it has to be manufactured at high temperatures and pressures, to the tune of 1,500 degrees Celsius and 5 GPa respectively, making it expensive.

A team led by physical chemist Sarah Tolbert of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) wanted to design new, cheap, hard materials from basic principles instead of just evaluating lists of plausible candidates. The reason diamond is so hard is because it has a tetrahedral bonding structure -- imagine a ball standing on a tripod of sticks (bonds) with one stick poking up from the top -- featuring strong covalent bonds. This forms a nice, regular, strong 3D bonding system.

Some metals form a strong bonding network in two dimensions, but are soft because in bulk form they're made up of planes that easily slide on top of each other. The UCLA team thought they might be able to come up with a hard material by adding another element that formed intermediate covalent bonding layers between the planes. In 2005, the team combined osmium metal with boron, at 1,000 degrees Celsius and ambient pressure, and came up with a material almost as hard as diamond. The researchers then went on to using cheaper rhenium and boron; the resulting material, rhenium diboride, at 48 GPa is hard enough to scratch diamond. They believe they can do better still and are continuing their efforts.

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[MON 28 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (15)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (15): I left Orlando early on Saturday, 21 September, to get a leg up on the way back home to Colorado. This was a long drive, all the way to Alexandria, Louisiana, but the fact that I was gaining an hour going over a time zone helped, and I wasn't planning any serious stops anyway.

I did end up stopping at the Armaments Museum at Eglin AFB again. I didn't think I had the time, but I was chafing at missing it on the outward leg and wanted to pick it up anyway. It wasn't that far off I-10 -- I ducked off the highway and set my stopwatch to make sure I knew the clock was running. It was worth the side-trip, since the museum turned out to be full of fascinating items for those interested in munitions. I went through it almost at a run, taking flash pictures, and got back to I-10 after 1 hour 5 minutes. It was nice to make up for my screwup on the way out.

When I got to near Pensacola, I-10 featured the most impressive rest stops I'd ever seen -- nice buildings, with nighttime security to help deter highwaymen. There was a Blue Angels Skyhawk strike fighter on a pylon and I had to get some shots. They also had an odd feature, a windshield washer -- drive over an inductive loop and a pipe floods the window. It helped confirm my impression that the bugs could get severe on the Gulf Coast some parts of the year. I would soon find out that I didn't know the half of it.

highway rest stop, Pensacola

I went down the road and passed the rest station on the eastbound half of the highway -- it had a Grumman Cougar fighter on a pylon in Blue Angels colors and it was with deep regret that I kept on driving, with no sensible way to stop and get some shots of it.

* I soon had other things to worry about, mainly my car getting plastered with bugs, and not just any bugs, either. When I had first come down towards Mobile I had noticed bugs here and there -- the kind of insect known simply as a bug, a configuration like a cockroach but with a longer head, not a fly or ant or wasp or butterfly or beetle. This particular bug was black and red and almost always seemed to be mating -- a smaller bug coupled to a bigger bug. I was getting hit heavy with them; I talked to a convenience store clerk in Gulf Coast Mississippi who told me they were "love bugs" -- appropriate name -- and that they had to be cleaned off quickly, since they tended to get baked on in the hot sun and damage a car's finish. He told me that at the peak of the love bug season people would wash their cars two or three times a day. I was thinking swarms of mosquitoes; this was something I hadn't expected.

I made a mental note to check out love bugs on Wikipedia when I got to the hotel that evening. I went into Dawkins mode and thought they must have a brief adult lifespan since they were almost always seen coupled -- they mature to then breed, and die quickly. Fortunately, as I went through Louisiana towards Baton Rouge I ran into some heavy rainstorms that swept the worst of the love bugs off.

I went over the Mississippi on the Huey Long bridge, an oversized truss structure, and then drove on a elevated highway for miles and miles -- obviously the terrain was simply too swampy to build the highway on the ground. I finally turned north onto I-49 towards Alexandria, Louisiana, my night stop. Incidentally, the highway signs were often uninformative: a sign for a turnoff will list the immediate destination of the turnoff, but not any towns beyond it. If I hadn't been tracking my movements fairly well on my little road atlas, I could have got good and lost a few times.

* I didn't get into the Super 8 in Alexandria too late, there was still the last traces of daylight available, and I had time to check Wikipedia on love bugs. It turns out that I was right, they have a short adult lifespan, maturing to mate, lay eggs, and die; they don't even eat when they're adults, and the larger male in the coupled duo usually dies before the female, who then hauls around his dead carcass while she looks for a place to lay. They are acidic and birds won't eat them, though the birds will feed on the larvae.

When the love bugs were originally described to science early in the 20th century, they were only found on the Gulf Coast of Texas and parts of Louisiana, but they are now found all over the Gulf Coast. It is believed that they were spread by turf farms, with love bug larva riding along with the sod. They are otherwise only found on the Gulf Coast, and at times they can form clouds visible from a distance. Apparently there are urban folktales that claim they were produced as some sort of scientific experiment that went wrong. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 25 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (3)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (3): Airport runways look like roadways; however, not only are they obviously wider, they also have to be much more robustly built, since a jumbo jet represents a load that would crack an ordinary roadway. The concrete needed to build a typical big-airport runway could build a two-lane highway 30 times as long.

Bigger aircraft, as a rule, demand longer runways -- mostly to support takeoff, since thrust reversers and brakes can reduce landing roll. Airports at high ground altitudes and in warm climates also need longer runways, since aircraft engines don't operate as efficiently under "hot & high" conditions. Some runways can be 4.8 kilometers (three miles) long or more. Interestingly, airport runways are marked for length, with patterns of one, two, and three stripes laid down every 150 meters (500 feet); there's a solid bar at the touchdown point, where a pilot is supposed to get the machine on the runway.

There are markers on the side of runway to give the number of thousands of feet left to the end of the runway -- they tick past on the takeoff run, "8", "7", "6", "5", ... and it's a good thing to be airborne once they reach "2" or "1". There are also big codes painted on the runways to identify them from the air, with the compass direction given in tens of degrees -- "18" means "180 degrees" -- and dual runways marked as "L" or "R" for left and right respectively. The runway centerline is marked with a dashed line to provide a target for landing alignment; the edges of the runways are marked by white borderlines.

Paved areas on the runway shoulders and beyond the runway thresholds are marked with yellow stripes or herringbones. These areas cannot bear the weight of an aircraft, being paved just to prevent the engine wash from an aircraft from tossing up stones and dirt. There may also be blast deflector walls at the foot of a runway to similarly prevent dispersal of ground debris.

Taxiways provide access from the terminal building to the runways. Taxiways are always marked in yellow to prevent dangerous confusion with runways. Little "highway signs" near to the ground in black and yellow designated taxiways; they are always given letter designations, for example "E" or "K" or "W". Similar signs designate runways, though they feature white letters on red and are numbers, not letters. There's a "hold line" painted on a taxiway where an aircraft must wait before being authorized to get onto the runway for takeoff. There are also signs here and there that say "ILS", meaning: "Don't stop here, you'll block the airport instrument landing system."

On maps, airports are often marked as a triangular arrangement of three runways. This was actually once a popular configuration for airports, since it allowed aircraft to take off at different directions depending on the wind. The problem was that only one aircraft could take off or land at a time. More modern airports may have runways on either side of the terminal, permitting takeoffs and landings at the same time; if there are dual runways on each side, two takeoffs and landings can be performed sequentially, though for safety reasons they aren't done in parallel -- one aircraft has to be clear before the other starts its takeoff roll. Really big airports may have dual runways on all four sides of the terminal building.

Runways have to be built very flat, since even a slight grade would stretch out takeoff runs. That flatness leads to a nasty drainage problem, and so runways tend to be "crowned", meaning higher along the centerline, and also grooved to carry off the water. The water ends up in a storm sewer system, usually set well back from the runway

There's a fuel dump on the airport grounds to provide aircraft fuel, with large tanks that can be seen from a distance. The fuel dump needs to be nearby to reduce the length of piping, but not too nearby and definitely not under a flight path -- accidents do happen, and there's no reason for them to become catastrophes.

Weather instrument stations can be spotted here and there, well away from jet exhaust blast that might confound their readings. There are also wind socks near runways -- they're an antique technology, but pilots still rely on them. Not only does a wind sock give direction, it also gives a hint of wind speed, since the sock fills up more with faster winds. In addition, the airport is equipped with instruments to determine visibility, with one unit shining a light to the other that reads its intensity, and to measure the altitude of cloud ceiling, with one unit pulsing a light beam upward at an angle whose reflection is measured at another.

Airports often have problems with birds setting up homes in the flat areas outside the runways, and impacts with birds can crack windshields or damage engines. There are many ways to chase off the birds, though few work very well -- scarecrows, various kinds of noisemakers, and so on -- and sometimes predators like foxes are introduced, or human hunters are employed to simply shoot the birds. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 24 JAN 08] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: There's been talk for some time of using fuel cell systems in laptop computers, cellphones, and other portable gadgets, since fuel cells can provide a lot more energy than batteries of comparable size. According to BUSINESS WEEK, this notion is getting closer to reality, as French ballpoint-pen giant Bic considers jumping into the market for fuel cartridges. The fuel cartridges would look a bit like an ink cartridge for a pen, containing methanol or similar fuel for the fuel cell. The challenge is to make the cartridge easy to use, safe, and of course cheap enough for the consumer market. Bic is not planning on designing the fuel cell systems themselves, but is working with companies such as Samsung and LG to make sure Bic's cartridges and the fuel cell systems work properly together.

The same article had a sidebar on the US military's efforts to obtain fuel cell systems for the troops. Soldiers on patrol can end up carrying a heavy load of batteries for their electronic gear; fuel cells could allow them to get four times the amp-hours at half the weight. The fuel cells could be refilled from a tanker, or by using snap-in cartridges.

* BUSINESS WEEK ran a review article on mass-storage servers for the home. The increasing use of photo, video, and audio files on home PCs is increasingly straining disk capacity. If there's only one PC in a home an external USB disk drive, which usually is shipped with PC software to perform automatic backups and the like, is a simple and cost-effective solution -- but if there's multiple PCs in one home, a USB drive is a clumsy fix since sharing files between PCs is troublesome. The better solution is to have a single networked central server to do the job.

There are a number of home servers out there, but the article focused on the HP MediaSmart Home Server, which comes in a 500 gigabyte version for $560 USD and a 1 terabyte version for $710 USD; a USB drive can be plugged into a server to increase storage if desired. The customer gets a box with no display and no keyboard, then the user hooks it up on the network and runs Microsoft's Windows Home Server software to get things running. Configuration is simple, and once it's working, each PC on the home network will back up to the server once every day. A Mac can be put on the network, but it can't do automatic backups. Any user can play music or video off the Home Server, with the Home Server providing library software to organize its contents. Other capabilities are coming down the road, for example a plug-in that will allow the Home Server to act as a digital video recorder, with the recorded TV shows available to the users on the network.

* POPULAR SCIENCE ran a short article on an interesting technology: a two-mode power transmission for hybrid pickups and other large consumer vehicles, being developed by General Motors (GM). The two-mode transmission features sets of gears providing power from the internal combustion (IC) engine and two electric motors neatly integrated into the transmission itself:

The article seemed to hint that the transmission had continuously variable modes, but it was hard to see for certain -- it was such a damned complicated piece of hardware!

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[WED 23 JAN 08] NANOTECH MENACE?

* NANOTECH MENACE? As discussed in an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Little Risky Business", 24 November 2007), ideas for nanotechnology began to come into wide circulation in the 1980s and 1990s, the focus at the time being on tiny nanomachines, the size of viruses, that could do everything from rewire brain to provide immortality to colonize space. The discussions about nanomachines also warned that they could destroy all life on Earth, disassembling it into a "gray goo" that covered the planet. Since nobody had the least practical idea of how to build any sort of nanomachines, it was all hand-waving and sci-fi, but at the same time, materials and chemical researchers were learning to perform nanoscale fabrication, acquiring a new level of ability to manipulate matter. Nanomaterials are now being sold and promise to become a very big business.

The fact that nanomaterials research doesn't have the least prospect of producing a gray-goo disassembler doesn't mean that worries have been forgotten. In October 2007, Dr. Andrew Maynard, a nanotech specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, stood up in front of a Congressional committee to hold up a packet of carbon nanotubes: Maynard pointed out that he had got the packet through the posts, and it was described as nothing more than graphite.

Superficially, that's true. Graphite is formed of planes of carbon atoms, with each plane made up of a mesh of hexagonal cells of atoms. Carbon nanotubes amount to the mesh rolled up into a tube, while similar carbon "buckyballs" are spheres formed out of that mesh. It is also true that such carbon nanostructures can be found in natural soot, but are they really as safe as graphite powder? Maybe they are, but given our state of knowledge about nanomaterials, we don't know enough to say one way or another. Another participant in the congressional hearing, Dr. Vicki Colvin -- a professor of chemistry at Rice University in Houston and a leader in nanotechnology risk research -- told the group: "If you fund five teams to understand nanotube toxicity, and they get five different answers, your research investment hurts you because it creates uncertainty. The bad news is that we have way over five different opinions about carbon nanotube toxicity right now."

* Hundreds of products claiming to be nanomaterials-based are now on the market. In most cases, the only sense in which they are nanotech is that they use materials reduced to powders with particles a few nanometers -- billionths of a meter -- in diameter. In some cases, the particles are manipulated into structures such as rings, shells, beads, cages, and wires.

Some nanotech products are applied directly to the skin, for example cosmetics and sunscreens. Titanium dioxide has long been used as a sunscreen, being generally stereotyped as a white paste -- but the latest sunscreens use titanium dioxide nanoparticles, allowing them to block ultraviolet while passing visible light, making them more or less transparent. Silver nanoparticles are also popular since they can have antimicrobial properties, and they are used in products from bed linen to teddy bears to chopsticks to food preparation gear. The food industry is interested in using nanomaterial processing to include trace metals in foods and to make them less fattening.

Once people start talking about nanoparticles in food, nobody has to be a luddite to stop and worry for a moment. To be sure, we inhale and ingest nanoparticles from the environment all the time, but then again, we know that a portion of those nanoparticles, such as particulates from diesel engine exhaust, aren't good for us. Any chemist will freely admit that supposedly harmless materials fabricated as nanoparticles may have unpredictable properties simply due to their small size. Bulk copper is soft, while copper nanoparticles are hard. Bulk gold is nonreactive, while gold nanoparticles react easily. Materials, such as carbon, that are safe enough in bulk form may become unsafe in nanoparticle form.

In fact, there's plenty of good reason to worry that may be the case. The reactivity of materials tends to increase with surface area, and given that volume deceases by the cube of the diameter while surface area decreases by the square, the ratio of surface area to volume gets much bigger at small sizes. Half the atoms of a five-nanometer particle are on its surface. Research suggests that nanoparticles could penetrate the body's defensive systems and accumulate in the brain, cells, blood, and nerves. There are suggestions that nanoparticles could cause pulmonary inflammation; move from the lungs to other organs; demonstrate surprising toxicity; be scavenged up by the lymphatic system; and possibly move across cell membranes. Worse, these phenomena tend to vary according to different nanoparticle configurations.

The applications of nanomaterials perceived as the most sensitive involve those that go in or on the body: food additives, cosmetics, drug delivery systems, new therapeutics, plus textile coatings and treatments. However, there are broader concerns: carbon nanotubes have been used for a number of years in plastics as a stiffener, and to make paints and the like conductive. What happens when products using such plastics and paints are dumped or broken up? Will the nanotubes enter the groundwater?

* In 2004, Britain's Royal Society recommended that nanomaterials be treated as entirely new substances as far as regulatory actions were concerned. Unfortunately, trying to assess the "environmental, health, & safety (EHS)" risks is troublesome.

Some governments don't see a particular issue over nanomaterials. Companies are responsible for the safety of their products to begin with, and so the specific nature of those products shouldn't make any difference -- if the products have been demonstrated to be safe, they will be certified as safe; if they haven't, they won't be allowed on the market. That is a reasonable point of view -- except for the fact that nanomaterials open up such a Pandora's box of ugly questions that it isn't reasonable to simply assume companies can do the job of assessing the EHS risks of nanomaterials themselves.

Many companies involved are not complacent about the issue either, and are trying to come up with tests of their own so they can determine the nature and extent of problems. Big companies actually have the capability to perform very credible research on the subject, since they're familiar with the regulatory environment and have good research staffs. The same is not necessarily true of the smaller companies, and some of them have simply shrugged the matter off: "Titanium dioxide is a perfectly safe material, isn't it? Why should titanium dioxide nanopowders be any different?" Insurers are in a foggy state as well, and for the moment have simply shrugged and included nanomaterials as part of their general product liability coverage.

However, over the longer term, insurers have a strong vested interest in making sure that nanomaterials don't pose a significant EHS hazard. Governments also have a vested interest in making sure that nanomaterials are safe, since they will shoulder much of the blame if they aren't. The general belief is that government funding being pumped into nanotech development at this time should include money for EHS risk evaluation. The relevant businesses see that as all for the good, with the Nanotechnology Industries Association, a British trade group, calling for better coordination on risk evaluation research.

The Council for Science & Technology, an advisory group to the British government, has warned that research into the EHS risks of nanotech is going much too slowly, and in America some members of Congress have lit into the US government's National Nanotechnology Initiative for its lack of focus on safety issues. The US government currently spends the most money on nanotech research, estimated to be as much as $60 million USD a year. However, Dr. Maynard and his colleagues have suggested a program to perform EHS risk evaluation for nanotech that will need $100 million USD a year, at least until the level of risks are understood.

There's a lot of work to do. Regulation of any sort of materials use is based on measurement, monitoring, and risk estimation, and right now there's little ability to do any of that with regards to nanomaterials. We don't even have common terminology or tools to measure nanomaterials, characterize them, and assess their purity. Work towards that end is being coordinated by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in Geneva, Switzerland, and the general expectation is that it will happen.

Can it happen soon enough? Nobody is promoting a hysterical view of nanomaterials, claiming we're on the edge of a global disaster; the issue is that we simply don't have the knowledge to understand if they are really safe or not. That uncertainty casts a cloud over the nanomaterials industry, even as governments pump in money to ramp up work and produce significant new products -- new therapeutics, better batteries, cleaning up water, generating green energy. Getting rid of that cloud makes work on the EHS risks of nanotech very important; and on the positive side, once the risks are better understood, the money pumped into nanotech will go farther since it won't be sunk into dead-end research paths.

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[TUE 22 JAN 08] CHANGING TARGETS

* CHANGING TARGETS: The Bush II Administration has proposed goals for the US space program that sound ambitious on the surface, envisioning the return of astronauts to the Moon in the next decade, leading to the establishment of a Moon base by the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) as a stepping-stone to sending astronauts to Mars.

There has been considerable skepticism over the plan, with critics seeing such schemes as a rehash of stale and impractical ideas. As discussed in an article in AVIATION WEEK ("Moon Stuck" by Craig Covault, 18 January 2008), a faction in the US space community is lobbying for a new plan, which would delete the lunar base, instead focusing on manned missions to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), along with a restored emphasis on Earth environmental satellites. The asteroid mission, which might be performed as early as 2025, could be a better stepping-stone to Mars, permitting a rehearsal of a flight to the Martian moons Deimos and Phobos. An asteroid mission could also be a rehearsal for the day when it is necessary to divert the path of an NEA to keep it from striking the Earth.

The "New Space Group (NSG)", to give it an arbitrary label, is also advocating flights to the outer Sun-Earth Lagrange point, 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) beyond the Earth's orbit on the line running from Sun to Earth, where large astronomy platforms are increasingly being stationed. Manned flights would permit updates to the platforms, much like those performed by the space shuttle with the Hubble space telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched to the outer Lagrange point in 2013; the design was recently updated to include a docking system for the new NASA Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to support manned or robotic update missions. The outer Lagrange point is in general a much better site for astronomical platforms than the Moon, particularly in terms of servicing missions; if the platforms were sited on the Moon, the servicing mission would have to land on the Moon's surface and then lift off again to get back home.

The NSG, which is planning a get-together at Stanford University in California in mid-February, claims that the plan to return to the Moon has not captured the public imagination. Some in the group call it a boondoggle, pointing out that to sustain a Moon base would be preposterously expensive and unsustainable for long-term habitation, with even a bottle of water roughly worth its weight in gold. Says Robert Farquhar, a long-time veteran of planning and operating deep-space and planetary missions: "It's becoming painfully obvious that the Moon is not a stepping-stone for manned Mars operations but is instead a stumbling block."

Other professionals in the NSG fear that a manned Moon base will bog down the space program for decades and make the ultimate goal of manned Mars flights more difficult to achieve. Many in the group claim the administration's space plan is only supported by companies that are in a position to profit from it. It is certainly obvious that the administration's plan is fuzzy on long-term commitments and funding. NASA's immediate effort is mainly focused on phasing out the NASA space shuttle, with the Orion CEV and its Ares I launcher proving troublesome enough to fund. The NSG sees the long-term focus as an invitation to the classic NASA trap of trying to push through gold-plated programs on an inadequate budget, with more practical programs suffering accordingly.

Some preliminary work on an asteroid mission based on the CEV is underway, and the project is expected to be a high-profile subject for workshops at the Stanford meeting. The NSG believes that the future space program should work more closely with commercial space enterprises to get more done on smaller budgets; a recent informal space program survey by THE NEW YORK TIMES found substantial public frustration over NASA's doing what entrepreneurs could do better. Missions to asteroids and Lagrangian points, for example, are seen as carrying along Bigelow-type commercial inflatable habitat modules. International participation is also envisioned.

The asteroid visit and Lagrangian mission concepts to be discussed at the conference are based on the Orion CEV, Ares I, and Ares V heavy-lift booster infrastructure now in development, but in ways that would be much better stepping-stones to Mars than developing a manned lunar base. Asteroid and Lagrangian point missions would each last several weeks or months. Both missions would have targets well beyond the Moon, requiring operations more like much longer trips to Mars. Robot options will also be considered, with a working group to define manned versus robotic tradeoffs.

For now, NASA remains committed on a return to the Moon. What happens after the new administration takes office in early 2009 remains to be seen. The big problem is that space exploration is a low-priority item and is necessarily going to take a back seat to the national and international crises of the day. When administrations do pay attention to it, they generally set up a committee and end up doing something big, flashy, bureaucratic, and politically expedient. Low priority or not, however, billions of dollars are still marching out the door to no good effect, and that's what is going to keep on happening until the issue gets seriously rethought.

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[MON 21 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (14)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (14): I didn't have to kill too much time at Sea World before the Nautilus show began on the afternoon of Friday, 20 September, but given I didn't have too much to do I went to the Nautilus early enough to make sure being seated wasn't a problem. It was dark in the theater and they were playing spacey music over the sound system; vendors were up front, selling the little LED light toys that spin and flash streams of colors, which actually lent a certain entertaining air even before the performance began.

It began with a clown working the audience. He was mute, dressed in street clothes and with no clown makeup, wearing a vest, a smashed-up hat, and a knapsack. I was in the back and he was working the front, which was fine by me -- I recalled from the time I saw CIRQUE DU SOLEIL in Vegas that the clowns could get sadistic with their victims. To be sure, this was family-oriented Orlando, not in-your-face Vegas, but I was cautious anyway. The clown was reading a map, trying to find his way around, walking on the bleachers with people jumping up out of his way. At one point, he spotted something in the audience, crowded up through the rows of bleachers, and then stopped in front of a viewer with a bald head to pull out a cloth and carefully give his dome a polish. That was about as nasty as he got, and it did get a laugh from the audience.

Anyway, after warming up the crowd, the clown retreated to the stage, where he ended up being "out to sea", eventually visiting about four different aquatic scenarios:

My only real problem with the performance was that there wasn't more. OK, although my expedition to Florida had been beginning to falter, this ended it on a very high note.

I went back to the hotel to pack up and eat. I had been consistently taking my dinners at a restaurant named FRIENDLY'S in the resort area I was in -- it featured burgers, fish and chips, and the like, and emphasized ice cream sundaes and the like for desserts. I'd ended up taking all my dinners there -- not that I hadn't wanted to get a more proper meal, it was just too nearby when I was cramped for time, and besides I had a strange craving for ice cream sundaes.

I got familiar with some of the waitresses; one was giving me a hard time and I told her to relent, I'd been on the road too long and my brain was starting to seize up. I hadn't seen FRIENDLY'S around in Colorado, which was a pity -- I liked the menu, the prices were good for the product -- and asked another waitress if it was a Southern chain. No, it was from the Northeast and had spread down South -- maybe it would get to Colorado one of these days. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 18 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE - AVIATION (2)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (2): The terminal buildings at an airport are surrounded by an "apron", which is just the place where aircraft are boarded and unboarded while they are prepped for their next flight.

The first thing a pilot has to do after taxiing to the terminal is to park the jetliner. Marks may be painted on the pavement to show where the aircraft needs to park, with different marks for different aircraft -- Boeing 737 or 747, Airbus A310 or A320. The pilot can't see the marks and so is guided by a ground crewman with flashlights or bright orange paddles. Some airports have marker signs to guide the pilot directly, with the signs split in two and misaligned in such a way that they only merge when the pilot is on line. Other airports use lights that change from red to green as the pilot comes into position. The telescoping jetways are guided to the doors of the aircraft using a joystick control at the end of the jetway, with the handler using the joystick to move the end of the jetway forward and back, right or left, and up or down.

The most obvious task for prepping the jetliner to return to the air is to refuel it. A cart comes out, with the ground crewperson making sure the aircraft is connected to grounding lines tacked onto the runway, lest a big static zap cause a disaster when the fuel lines are hooked up. Incidentally, if you're ever walking around on the runway of an airport, say for an airshow, it's good to keep an eye out for grounding lines, since they present a trip hazard.

Anyway, once the aircraft is grounded, the cart hooks one hose up to the aircraft and second hose to a fuel line hydrant, buried in the runway and linked to the airport fuel dump. The cart doesn't have to pump the fuel, that's done by pumps at the dump, but it filters it and also meters the fuel load to ensure proper billing. Some airports have all the gear built into vaults in the underground fuel system and don't need carts.

Small airports may not have an underground fuel-distribution system and use tanker trucks (AKA "bowers"). Bowers aren't useful for a big airport that handles jumbo jets, since even the biggest tanker truck won't come close to filling up a Boeing 747. Jet aircraft use "jet-A" fuel, which smells like kerosene but is generally denser and purer. Piston aircraft use high-octane gasoline (AKA "avgas").

A big power umbilical cord is hooked up to the jetliner to provide ground power. In some places lacking such facilities, a ground power cart does the job. A big hose is also hooked up to a jetliner to provide air conditioning, once again either from site facilities or from a cart. The aircraft is serviced by:

As a minor comment, while it's possible to use an electric starter system for a small jet engine, that's not practical for a big one. Once upon a time, a cart had to come up to feed compressed air to the aircraft to get the turbines rolling. These days, jetliners typically have an "auxiliary power unit (APU)", a small turbine engine that can provide ground electrical power and compressed air for turning over the main engines. It is unclear if starter carts remain in any use these days. Incidentally, once upon a time military aircraft, which might have to operate out of field airstrips with few conveniences like starter carts, used "pyrotechnic starters", which were like big shotgun shells that generated a lot of gas to turn over the engines when they were ignited. They tended to be very smoky and sometimes they gave exciteable onlookers the impression the engine was on fire. Modern military aircraft typically use APUs as well.

Although jetliners taxi around on their own engine power on the runways, they can't back up, and so a tractor or tug vehicle has to shove them off the apron so they can taxi out to the runway. Taxiing is an inefficient use of expensive jet fuel, by the way, and there's been experiments with fitting jetliners with electric drive systems on their landing gear so they can roll around without using the jet engines.

In wintry regions, ice is a major problem for jetliners, and can lead to disaster if it's not removed before takeoff. Jetliners have deicing systems for handling ice in flight, but on the ground it can build up, and so some airports have deicing trucks that hose down the aircraft with antifreeze. Some big airports have fixed deicing stations, which makes it easier to collect the antifreeze runoff. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 17 JAN 08] RODENT ON STEROIDS

* RODENT ON STEROIDS: Paleontologists, who currently have access to many fine fossil beds and improved tools, believe that they in what will be seen as a "golden age" of paleontology. This is borne out by the fact that as of late they have been coming up with remarkable new discoveries every few months.

According to an article on BBC WORLD Online ("Gigantic Fossil Rodent Discovered" by Jonathan Fildes), the latest remarkable finding is of the skull of a rodent dug up in Uruguay, indicating a beast about the size of a bull -- with a weight estimated at a tonne (2,200 pounds) and a length of 3 meters (10 feet). This is 15 times the size of the largest contemporary rodent, the South American capybara, which is about the size of a big dog. The giant rodent was given the name Josephoartigasia monesi, and it's about 40% bigger than Phoberomys pattersoni, the previous record-holder, discovered in Venezuela in 2003 and nicknamed the "guineazilla".

Josephoartigasia monesi skull

The skull, which is 50 centimeters (20 inches) long in itself, was discovered in the Rio de La Plata coastal region. It ended up in the storeroom of the Museum of Natural History in Montevideo for three years before the staff got the time to check it out and found out it was something different. Details of the skull suggest it is most closely related to a middling-sized contemporary South American rodent, the pakarana, and the body size was estimated by comparison with the pakarana.

J. monesi is thought to be about 2 to 4 million years old. The incisors are big, even proportional to the size of the skull, and it may have gnawed on wood like a modern beaver; the incisors may have also been used as weapons. There were a number of giant mammals in South America in its day, such as giant armadillos and giant ground sloths, with their size giving them protection from predators, such as the big ground-living "terror birds" of the pampas that preyed on smaller creatures. South American paleontologists say they would not be surprised to find remains of even bigger rodents -- they were one of the predominant mammal orders in South American in the era and there was a wide range of rodent species.

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[WED 16 JAN 08] VATCHEN DAS BLINKEN LITES

* VATCHEN DAS BLINKEN LITES: Communications by light beam is an old idea, having been embodied in the "heliostats" introduced by military forces in the 19th century, in which the reflection of the sun was focused through a shutter to send messages in Morse. The same concept was used in the blinker lamps long used to communicate between ships at sea. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, ("A New Old Idea", 8 September 2007), the idea of optical wireless or "free space optics (FSO)" has been heavily revived in modern times.

FSO links began to be introduced about ten years ago, with vendors such as Terabeam, LightPointe, and Cablefree Solutions offering businesses point-to-point optical links that could be used to transfer data between nearby buildings. Although these early FSO links could handle data rates up to hundreds of megabits per second (MBPS), customers really only required about 10 MBPS. That was as fast as an ordinary fiber-optic link, and the FSO link was much cheaper and easier to install. There are also no constraints from radio-spectrum regulations.

Nowdays, short-range infrared FSO links -- operating over a maximum distance of a few hundred meters -- are in common use in businesses, hospitals, and universities, with maximum data rates of 3 gigabits per second (GBPS). Since the links use highly directional lasers, it is difficult to intercept the beams. Really nasty weather, like a heavy snow or dust storms, can disrupt communications, but such events can also play hell with traditional microwave links. The outages are rare enough to be make the low cost of FSO a good buy.

free-space optical link

FSO is now also increasingly used inside buildings. A short range link can operate at up to 10 GBPS, but it is restricted to a line of sight between devices. A diffuse source can be used, bouncing its light off of walls to jump from room to room, but that means a low data rate. Cranking up optical power increases the hazard of eye damage. One scheme under investigation is to use a smart transmitter system that can track where receivers are and direct one of a network of low-power infrared lasers to focus precisely on a receiver. There is also some work in Japan on integrating FSO transmitters into household lighting. That won't work with old-fashioned incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, but as LEDs become cheaper and more capable, they are becoming more attractive for use in household lighting; they are perfectly capable of supporting FSO, and in fact the shorter visible-light wavelengths used by household lighting can support higher data transfer rates than infrared.

Enthusiasts see many applications for FSO. For example, transmitters could be integrated into car headlights and taillights to transmit speed and braking information to other vehicles, helping avoid collisions. Traffic lights could give an alert when they are about to change, or even pass on traffic advisories to passing vehicles.

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[TUE 15 JAN 08] WHEEL & DEAL NO MORE

* WHEEL & DEAL NO MORE: Except for those who really like dicker and have the time for it, few find buying a new car a very pleasant experience. Buy, say, a personal computer, it has a price sticker on it, and that's the price paid. Buy a car, the price sticker on it is just a highball bargaining position -- asking for hundreds for trivial "dealer prep" -- to be knocked down by the customer as much as possible. Not surprisingly, car salesmen are one of the least trusted people in business.

According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Haggling Starts To Go The Way Of The Tail Fin" by David Welch, 29 October 2007), there's a movement in the automotive industry to quit playing games and rationalize sales. In September 2007, Lithia Automotive Group, the USA's eighth-biggest dealer network, plans to convert all of the network's 108 stores into haggle-free zones over the next three years. Toyota's youth-oriented Scion brand has had a negotiation-free policy from when it was launched four years ago.

Most dealers don't like the idea of a fixed price, and in fact there was a push towards the notion in the early 1990s that went nowhere. However, since any sensible customer can get an accurate pricing off the Edmunds.com website, the game has been becoming increasingly hollow, and besides, Americans don't generally like to dicker much. Women in particular hate it, and young adults getting their first new cars just don't want to spend the time screwing around with it. These days, web-literate young adults usually come into the dealership with all the options and price specified; Toyota saw it coming, and set up the Scion dealer network accordingly.

Although some dealerships have tried no-dicker policies and found they couldn't keep up with competitors, others wondered why it took them so long. Salespeople didn't have to spend so much time and expense making a sale, there was no need to load up the dealership with sales managers to get approvals, and there was no need to advertise the deal of the week. In the new order, instead of being forced to chase commissions, the salespeople get a regular salary, with bonuses for performance. Customers end up being more loyal to a dealership as well, since the salespeople don't end up coming on like predators.

The automotive industry is conservative, and changing the way dealerships do things may not be simple, which is why Lithia opted to change policy over three years and not all at once. However, the environment in which the dealerships operate has changed, whether they like it or not, and they may have no choice over the long run to adapt.

* ED: When I bought my Toyota Yaris two years ago, I found the experience generally unpleasant. Most of the sales guys not only lied to me, they told blatant and outrageous lies just to see how far they could push me; it was an intimidation technique. I did get treated pretty fairly by John Elway Toyota in Denver. The sales guy was reasonably straight with me, and I paid what Edmund's website said what would be fair to pay. Anyway, the whole absurd thing to it was that he told me he didn't make much of a commission on the low-end Yaris. I knew that already; I realized one of the reasons the other salespeople were blatantly jerking me around was because they didn't really care if they sold me a Yaris or not.

That suggested to me that the only way Toyota managed to get the dealers to push the Yaris at all was by imposing sales quotas on them. The whole arrangement struck me as perfectly mad, a system guaranteed to serve nobody's interests -- not the factory, not the dealership, not the salespeople, not the customer. Why not at least set aside the low-end cars and sell them at sticker, using folks who just write up the options and do the paperwork? The sales guys could then focus on high-margin cars. It does now seem some rationality is breaking through. Maybe when I get a new car towards the end of the next decade -- a 100 MPG three wheeler? -- it'll be as easy as buying a PC.

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[MON 14 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (13)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (13): On the morning of Friday, 20 September, I went to the Universal Studies theme parks in Orlando proper. I hadn't been too impressed by it in my 1998 visit, but they had added a new ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE complex and I figured it was worth a shot.

I went into the original park and lined up for the SHREK 4D presentation. I knew generally what to expect -- 3D video with various special effects such as smells and the like, and that's what I got. I wasn't a big fan of the original SHREK movie, finding it no more than mildly amusing, and the SHREK 4D "sequel" was no more than that -- though it was fun when Eddie Murphy's Donkey sneezed, with a spray of water shot into the faces of the audience. I followed it up with the MEN IN BLACK ALIEN ATTACK, which was a laser-tag game ride, blasting away at aliens. It was too frantic for my taste.

I had seen TERMINATOR III in 1998 and decided to give it a shot again, but like I said, theme-park attractions live on novelty, and seeing it again was stale -- it seemed dated. THE REVENGE OF THE MUMMY ride was something new and ingenious, full of clever effects -- riding a coaster around the dark with a monstrous voice proclaiming doom, ceilings blasting out fire, with horror-movie scenes integrated in. It was also incoherent.

OK, I realized I was not getting into this. I went over to ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE with no more expectation except of getting some shots. I passed by the INCREDIBLE HULK coaster, not just because I was still feeling a bit queasy but because I had been "coastered out" -- I'd ridden SHEIKRA and KRAKEN, what was one more coaster? I did catch SPIDER-MAN THE RIDE, which was an elaborate combination of crazy-house ride and simulation ride, but though it was technically ingenious the whole "Saturday morning cartoon" style did nothing for me.

I wasn't at loose ends, however, since my Busch ticket was unlimited for two weeks, and I could return to Sea World at leisure. I had missed a performance at the Nautilus theater of a CIRQUE DU SOLEIL style circus on my Tuesday visit, and I really wanted to pick that up. I completed the Universal tour as fast as I could and went down International Drive to Sea World.

It was about 1:00 PM when I got there and the next performance at the Nautilus was at 4:00 PM. No sweat, if one must kill time, Sea World is one of the best places in the world to do it. I went back to the JEWELS OF THE SEA aquarium, and this time got some pix of the sea dragons and the comb jellies. I'd see people trying to take flash pix and had to bite my tongue: All you'll get doing that is a picture of the flash reflecting off the glass. I figured out the trick -- turn off the flash, hold the camera objective against the glass to steady the camera, and then take a sequence of shots. I later found I got surprisingly good results.

lesser anteater

I was also wandering around when I ran into a staffer carrying a snoozy lesser anteater in her arms -- I got some great shots of the beast. I stroked it but its hair was stiff, tending towards bristly. The staffer told me that it was from Discovery Cove "across the street" -- I was puzzled when I looked for it on the park map and queried her about it. She replied that it was a separate theme park -- oh yeah, that's right, the "elite" Sea World, where you pay $250 USD for a day visit but get to swim with dolphins and the like, you get what you pay for. I asked what they fed the anteater and was told: "She mostly lives on mealworms. Oddly we can't get her to eat ants." Sounded like a fussy cat. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 11 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (1)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- AVIATION (1): Chapter 11 of Brian Hayes' book INFRASTRUCTURE discusses aviation infrastructure, mostly meaning airports. Few people honestly like going to the airport; they're usually not very friendly places in themselves, and with worries about terrorism they've become even more unfriendly as security people run the passengers through screening. Back in the 1930s, the early days of real commercial air travel, the airport terminal was just a buffer between the parking lot and the runway, with passengers going in, buying a ticket, checking their bags, and walking out the other side to walk up a mobile stairway into the aircraft. At the destination, they went through the terminal building in reverse. There might have been a snack bar or vending machines to provide conveniences. Security was minimal at best.

Air travel has become a much bigger business since then and security has become much more of a worry, so airport terminals are appropriately bigger and more complicated. They usually have two levels, an upper level for ticketing and check-in, a lower level for arrivals, baggage pickup, and access to ground transport. The airport is also "zoned", with a security barrier dividing casual visitors from those boarding aircraft, who are checked for weapons and other contraband; there are also security zones for airport staff, and any visitor who goes through a STAFF ONLY door is asking for a great deal of trouble.

Since aircraft are so large these days, the boarding lounges are set up in long piers, with the aircraft taxiing up to accept or release passengers through telescoping "jetways". Airports are set up on a "hub and spoke" system, with passengers in the worst case being forced to take three flights -- one from a spoke to a hub, a second from the hub to another hub, a third from the second hub to the destination spoke. Since many passengers are only passing through hubs, some of the more modern hubs have concourses separate from the ground terminal, with shuttle buses or light rail linking the terminal to the concourses.

airport apron area

Large airports also have concession shops that rival a fair-sized shopping mall in terms of variety and goods. Unfortunately for the passengers, shopping malls easily beat them on price -- the passengers are stuck in the airport, so charging competitive prices isn't necessary. In some cases, shopping-center operators run airports these days. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 JAN 08] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BUSINESS WEEK reported on modern-day shoplifting in the USA, pointing out that retailers no longer have sticky-fingered teenagers at the top of their list of theft concerns. Now they are faced with well-organized gangs of thieves. One gang that was targeting Mervyn's stores in the Los Angeles area in 2006 was busted by law enforcement, with 30 people arrested after they made off with about a million USD in bluejeans. The gangs are well-organized, for example obtaining floorplans of the target retailer and foil-lined bags to frustrate store security. Gangs often use eBay to dispose of merchandise -- it's a lot easier and more profitable than trying to sell hot goods out of the back of a car.

The problem is that the thieves only lift a small amount in each trip to a store, meaning if they get caught all they get is a misdemeanor charge and a fine. The US National Retail Federation (NRF), with members including Target and Wal-Mart, wants to make organized shoplifting a felony. The NRF also wants to establish regulations requiring the listing of serial numbers of products sold on eBay and the like; web auctioneers do not like that idea at all. In the meantime, the retailers continue to build up their store security systems.

* A short article on WIRED Online praised the US military's commitment to green energy. Don't believe it? In fact, Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) in sunny Nevada, not far out of Las Vegas, has just installed America's biggest solar-power facility, a 15-megawatt system featuring 70,000 crystalline solar panels that pivot to track the sun. It will provide up to 30% of the electricity for the 12,000-person base. Similarly, the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California has one of the world's biggest geothermal installations, with 166 wells bored down to as far as 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) underground. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba gets about a quarter of its power from the wind, and Dyess AFB in Texas is completely powered by biomass from paper industry byproducts.

* According to a short article from THE ECONOMIST Online, Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston, Massachusetts, and Global Solar Energy of Tucson, Arizona, have developed ... get this ... solar-powered light-emitting cloth. Their "portable light" is driven by an inefficient but cheap and flexible solar cell technology based on copper indium gallium diselenide, worked into a fabric containing a network of small lithium-ion batteries and a matrix of hundreds of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

The idea is that a person in an undeveloped country could carry around a bag made of this material during the day and get light from it at night. Since only one side of the bag will be getting sunlight at a time, the network includes sensors and switches to divert the electric power generated to batteries that are in need of the most charging. The bag is expected to cost about $50 USD, less than poor people spend on candles, gas lamps, and batteries for flashlights. For myself, the idea sounds interesting, but it also sounds like it might take a lot of work to make it reliable.

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[WED 09 JAN 08] SCRIPTURE SMACKDOWN

* SCRIPTURE SMACKDOWN: Christianity and Islam are different in many ways, but they do have one thing clearly in common: a best-selling book, in the form of the Christian Bible and the Islamic Koran. They've been best-sellers for a long, long time and their sales figures are still going strong. As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Battle Of The Books", 22 December 2007), there are differences in the kind of "product" the two books are that cast interesting light on cultural differences.

The Bible is the weightier book; the Koran is only about 80% of the size of the New Testament alone -- whether that's a point in the Koran's favor or not, it certainly makes it easier to haul. Despite the Bible's heft, however, about 100 million copies are sold a year, and Bible sales in the USA run to a half-billion USD a year. Gideon's International hands out a Bible every second. The Bible is available in part or full in over 2,400 different languages, covering 95% of the world's population.

The relative brevity of the Koran does make it easier to memorize, which is important because Islamic ceremony is heavily grounded in recitation. A person who is able to recite the complete Koran from memory is honored in Islamic culture as a "hafiz", which in Iran is a title that confers the same regard as a university degree. Top recitors compete in tournaments that have big audiences, and audio CDs of the most eloquent are big sellers.

Both books have global reach. A century ago, the Bible was primarily used in the West, but today 60% of Christians live in the developing world. The biggest Bible publishing houses are not in the West, but in South Korea and Brazil. Islam has similarly become more cosmopolitan, with Muslims becoming increasingly recognized as a significant component in Western societies, though their numbers there have mostly been established through immigration and not conversion. The spreading influence of these scriptures lends the lie to the notion that modernization is incompatible with religion; in fact, modern technology and organizational methods have provided better tools to spread the word far and wide.

A world network of 140 bible societies works together towards the goal of providing a Bible to everyone on the planet. The American Bible Society, the most powerful member of the network, has even distributed 50 million Bibles in officially atheist China. As far as the Koran goes, Saudi Arabia bankrolls the distribution of about 30 million copies a year, by way of mosques, Islamic societies, and even Saudi embassies. A Koran is free for from "FreeKoran.com" -- just ask and one will come in the mail in a few weeks.

Think that books are passe? No problem, go online, there's plenty of sites to access the Bible from a web browser, palm pilot, or mobile phone, and it's possible to get live chat with like-minded souls. It's easy to download readings -- "Godcasting", not just "podcasting" -- for a digital audio player. In the Muslim world, there are TV and radio channels that do nothing but provide recitations of the Koran; video and audio tapes are commonly made by Islamic preachers to reach the faithful.

* From the point of view of the devout of both religions, the propagation of their sacred texts is a great thing, but it is not without its clouds. For example, the average American household has four Bibles -- but it appears that this is only because some households have a lot of Bibles, since half of Americans don't know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, can't explain what Easter commemorates, or have no idea that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Islam has a similar difficulty: strictly speaking, the Koran should be read in Arabic, that being the language of Allah, but only about 20% of Muslims can read Arabic, and in fact, given that illiteracy rates are high among poor Muslims, many can't read at all. The focus on memorization and recitation can, unsurprisingly, result in rote learning where students simply parrot scripture and have no understanding of it.

There is also the fact that both scriptures insist they are the true Word of God -- very literally so to Muslims, since the Prophet isn't regarded as the author of the Koran, he was instead taking dictation from Allah -- and since by simple logic both can't be, that leads to frictions and confrontation. There are voices for peaceful coexistence on both sides, but there are those on both sides who reject it as well. The Saudi patronage of the Koran tends to aggravate matters, since the Wahabinist flavor of Islam that underlies Saudi society takes a dim view of peaceful coexistence. The Koran prescribes the penalty of death for apostasy, and there are places in the Islamic world where the laws provide for its enforcement.

While anybody in the West who advocated the execution of citizens for nonconformist religious beliefs would be regarded as barking mad at best and a vicious sociopath at worst, it is at least possible to understand why Muslims can feel threatened, since many evangelical Christian groups are targeting Muslims for conversion. Some conservative Christian seminaries provide courses of study to missionaries on how to make Christians of Muslims. Some Christian groups go farther, printing up bogus versions of the Koran designed to sow doubt -- a tactic that unsurprisingly enrages Muslims.

Muslims also find they are at some disadvantages in the "battle of the books". True, Islam did grow rapidly over the past century as populations in Islamic lands grew, but the "War on Terror" has hindered attempts to spread the word of the Prophet, as Islamic charities and organizations fall under suspicion and scrutiny as potential organs of Islamic terrorism. Probably more significantly, the Islamic world has problems matching the sheer marketing clout of the commercialized West. Bible publishing company Thomas Nelson, originally the brainchild of a door-to-door Bible salesman, was sold for almost a half billion USD in 2005. Big-name publishing houses also have their Christian literature branches. The result is a Bible product for every need -- Thomas Nelson published 60 different editions, tailored for different markets, brides or cowboys or soldiers or whoever. There is a waterproof Bible for field use, a camo Bible for combat use; there's a "100 Minute Bible" for those with little spare time.

Christians in general don't seem too inclined to worry about altering the format or phrasing of the Bible's message if it helps get the message across, and have proven not only flexible but sometimes ingenious about repackaging that message. There are Bible comics for kids; Bibles for boys and little girls -- "God's Little Princess Devotional Bible", for instance; Bible-oriented youth magazines; and, along with the massive numbers of translations of the Bible, including one in Klingon put together by a group of Christian STAR TREK fans, all sorts of variations in the English vernacular, even one that's street oriented:

   And even though I walk through
   The Hood of Death
   I don't back down
   For You have my back.

There are slick Christian video productions with big-name Hollywood actors like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson (who can forget his Biblical reference in PULP FICTION?) -- and last but not least, toys, crossword books, coloring books, you name it. The Bible is a big, diversified business, and that means both reach and financial power to aid that reach.

Islamic publishing houses can't match that power, and to an extent they don't want to. As mentioned, to Muslims the only proper way to read the Koran is in Arabic, and translations are not only done reluctantly, but they are as literal as possible; a colloquial version of the Koran would be a very hard sell. And while not all Christians are happy about the commercialization of their religion, very few Muslims would regard commercializations of the teachings of the Prophet as anything but appalling and unthinkable -- the angry expulsion of a British schoolmarm from the Sudan a few months back when she naively named a teddy bear Mohamed after a boy in her class suggests the depths of outrage at the notion.

The financial imbalance is aggravated by the fact that the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia aside, tends toward the poor, while the United States, the source of the bulk of Christian missionaries, is at present the richest country on the planet. The Islamic world is also burdened, as mentioned, by high illiteracy rates, and has a low rate of internet connectivity.

Once again, it's not surprising there's hostility to Christian missionary efforts in Islamic lands, and not surprising that in some Islamic states, notably Saudi Arabia and Sudan, other religions are obligated by law to keep a low profile and are targets of official discrimination. Some evangelicals complain that Western traditions of religious toleration give them an uneven playing field, since Muslims can set up mosques in American cities but Christianity is hobbled in the lands of Islam -- but it can be argued that in subtle ways, that particular playing field is actually tilted towards the West. As long as they don't commit crimes, American evangelicals can promote their religion without legal constraint in the USA -- while the restrictive laws of the Saudis and the like impose hidebound government bureaucracy and inflexibility on Muslims, even as the citizens of these states increasingly penetrate the outside world via the internet. Religious intolerance ends up being more a sign of insecurity than of any strength.

What happens next in the "battle of the books" is anyone's guess, except for one thing: the region where the competition is most intense, subsaharan Africa, is an explosive matrix of failed states and ethnic animosities. It is no guess that the confrontation between sacred scriptures has a good chance of going beyond a battle to become a raging war.

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[TUE 08 JAN 08] YEAR OF THE FOG

* YEAR OF THE FOG: It is one of the strange observations of history that, while wars and the like tend to be well documented, massive natural calamities are often forgotten. As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Summer Of Acid Rain", 22 December 2007), on 8 June 1783, a Lutheran priest named Jon Steingrimsson who lived in southern Iceland reported the initial eruption of a long fissure, the Laki volcano, the priest talking of a cloud of "black sand" that blotted out the Sun, with earthquakes and tremors following that night.

Iceland is littered with volcanoes and eruptions are not unusual -- but the Laki eruption was well out of the normal. It poured out lava for eight months, dumping a total of 15 cubic kilometers of material, enough to bury all of Manhattan under a layer thick enough to cover the Rockefeller Center. Steingrimsson's description still comes across as awesome: "The flood of fire flowed with a speed of a great river swollen with meltwater on a spring day." When the flow hit a marsh or lake, "the explosions were as loud as if many cannon were fired at one time." What the priest did not realize, any more than anyone else did, was that the eruption of Laki would produce a climatic disaster over most of the northern hemisphere.

There are two general classes of volcanic eruptions: explosive and effusive. We're more generally familiar with the explosive eruptions, which involve a mountain blowing off its top; such blasts can throw ash and gas high into the atmosphere, resulting in distinct, sometimes severe cooling around the globe. Effusive eruptions do not have that kind of force, their output not reaching the upper atmosphere, but they produce much more volume. The Laki eruption produced enormous quantities of sulfur dioxide, as much in two days as all of European industry now produces in a year. The sulfur dioxide reacted with the water in the air to produce sulfuric acid, falling to earth as acid rain.

That would have been disastrous enough for Iceland, but normally prevailing winds would have simply carted the plume north over the polar icecap, where it would have done relatively little harm to human populations. However, in the summer of 1783, the prevailing winds were out of the ordinary, hauling the plume over Europe. Within a week, there were reports from Copenhagen of the sails and decks of sailing ships being covered with fine black ash falling from the sky; from Bergen that the ash was withering grass and leaves; from Prague that the sun was blood-red in the sky. By midmonth, the winds had shifted, with dense fogs over France and northern Italy, where locals said the air smelled of sulfur. A few days later reports from Britain indicated the same eerie, ugly gloom and the withering of wheat in the fields. By late in the month, the haze was over Saint Petersburg; by early July, it was observed over Baghdad, with unseasonable frosts observed in the region.

As unsettling as this might have seemed to witnesses, the nightmare was only beginning, since Laki continued to erupt. The plume spread around the Northern Hemisphere, forming a near-continuous low-lying fog in affected areas that remained for much of the remainder of 1783. Oddly, at least in Western Europe the fog did not result in chilly weather -- it was the hottest summer that would be recorded in Britain until 1995. Whether this was due to some "greenhouse effect" of the fog or if it was coincidental is hard to say.

There was worried talk of the Lord's displeasure with sinful mankind; the fog was certainly wrathful, with the number of deaths recorded in Britain twice that of normal, many of the dead being young and healthy who had been working outside in the polluted air and sweltering heat. It is estimated that about one in 20 French died. Scholars speculated on the nature of the haze, but only a few connected it to volcanic activity.

By the end of October 1783, Laki was subsiding, though it would go on sputtering into February 1784. However, the nightmare was only getting worse for Iceland: the volcano had also thrown up fluorine, which came back to the ground as hydrofluoric acid in an acid rain with a vengeance. Steingrimsson wrote: "The horses lost all their flesh. The skin began to rot off along the spines. The sheep were affected even more wretchedly. There was hardly a part of them free of swellings, especially their jaws, so large that they protruded through the skin ... both bones and gristle were as soft as if they had been chewed." Half the livestock perished; a quarter of Iceland's population died of starvation, the dead including Steingrimsson's wife.

Even when the fogs went away, the agony continued, since enough gas remained at higher altitudes to diminish sunlight, resulting in a particularly frigid winter. In America, Benjamin Franklin perceptively linked the chilly winter to the eruption of Laki. Oddly, though it was very cold in Iceland, the weather was not too unusually frosty in the capitals of Western Europe, but it was so cold in America that the harbor of normally warm Charleston, South Carolina, froze over solid enough to permit ice skating. Japan was also hit hard, leading to rice crop failures that would kill a million Japanese over the next few years. Inuit tribes in Alaska, used to severe weather, were confronted with a year where "summer did not come", and some tribes were almost wiped out. There were indirect effects as well: the failure of normal monsoon rains led to low floods of the Nile in 1783 and 1784, with a sixth of Egypt's population either starving to death or forced to leave the country as refugees.

The environmental damage was not persistent; the nightmare ended, the dead were buried, people returned to their lives. It is, however, unsettling to realize that in the 21st century we have little more defense against such a calamity than we did in the 18th, and given the greater population another such event would be a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions.

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[MON 07 JAN 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (12)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP (12): I was through with Disney's Animal Kingdom by noon on Thursday, 19 September, with Disney MGM-Studios next on the list -- but then I got to thinking that the Planes of Fame Museum wasn't all that long a drive and I could squeeze it in. I really wanted to get decent pix of the Catalina flying boat for my collection, and besides Disney-MGM stayed open late. I shrugged and drove down the road to the museum. I wasn't expecting too much, I knew from my 1998 visit that it was a restoration facility and not the best place for pix, but it was still worth the trip anyway.

Not only did I get good shots of the Catalina, there was also a full-scale replica of a German Natter rocket-powered interceptor and an old Soviet Po-2 biplane -- likely the most heavily produced airplane ever, with 40,000 built, but still an unusual sight in the USA. I also got some good pix of engines, including a bizarre Allison V-3420 engine that consisted effectively of two Allison V-1710 vee-12s jammed together side-by-side at an angle. It's as monstrous as it sounds -- didn't work that well, 24-cylinder inlines were generally not a good idea.

I couldn't spend too much time there, since I needed to get back to Disney-MGM -- the day was slipping away fast. The first attraction I was interested in was the LIGHTS MOTORS ACTION auto-thrills show -- a highly-regarded car stunts show that was originally made for Paris Disney.

While I was making my way there, I ran across another one of the roving bands Disney had on site, this one pretending to be a gardening crew and named MULCH SWEAT N' SHEARS -- they did covers of classic rock tunes. They turned out to be more of an attraction than LIGHTS MOTORS ACTION: it was a long wait to get in, there was something of a crowd, and it was no more than mildly amusing -- special cars with big touring bike engines built in the center, a car built to drive backwards, one that split in half, and so on.

Disney LIGHTS MOTORS ACTION show

I got the last show of the day, and afterwards I was a bit disappointed that I hadn't tried something else. I did catch the SOUNDS DANGEROUS presentation with Drew Carey as a bumbling detective; the audience wore headphones and much of the action was in blackout conditions, with the listeners to sort things out through stereo effects. It was forgotten the instant it ended.

I had wanted to ride the AEROSMITH ROCK-N-ROLLER COASTER, another electromagnetic coaster like the CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN' I had ridden in May, but it was under refurbishment -- just as well, since I was still not steady on my feet. My clock was running out, but I decided to fit in the TWILIGHT ZONE TOWER OF TERROR. I'd ridden it in 1998 and thought it would be sort of a shrug, but it turned out to be a nice cap of my visit to Disney. It involves a visit to an old hotel with some kind of curse, with a video intro by Rod Serling inviting the visitors into the Twilight Zone. The ride itself is basically in a "freight elevator" that rolls through visuals and then a series of free-fall drops; it proved extremely effective in giving that "Twilight Zone" feeling, since taking a free-fall drop in the dark is a unsettling experience.

There was one odd thing about it, however. Apparently the TOWER OF TERROR ride is effectively never the same experience twice, with some random variations for each session, and I had the distinct memory from 1998 that the "elevator" actually went outside the building. In my second session, it didn't -- was my distinct memory false? Alas, they so often are.

TOWER OF TERROR

Next, I hit Downtown Disney, mostly to check out the DisneyQuest facility there. This was a "virtual theme park" based on simulation rides and the like, and Disney had planned to open up a chain of them. I was mainly interested in the "Virtual Space Mountain" simulation ride. It was a bit confusing to figure out, since everybody got to make their own coaster. A rider goes to a video station, where Bill Nye the Science Guy walks the rider through selecting the difficulty level, the segments of the coaster, and so on; then the rider gets in line to get in a simulator. The simulator is a drum, capable of being spun upside-down and tilting on multiple axes. It was fun but not much more than a gimmick. I could see why the idea of making a chain of DisneyQuest facilities didn't work out -- basically it was just a glorified and overpriced video arcade.

Anyway, I was done with Disney. It was unfortunate that I had got so sick on Wednesday, since I ended up missing a few items that I would have been able to fit in had I been feeling better. Whatever -- I had expended my two-day Disney ticket and there was no more of Mouseland for me. I went back to the hotel and sorted out the day's haul in pictures. That was my regular schedule through the trip -- run through the day's attractions, go to the hotel room, dump the pix to my laptop, toss the obvious junk, and archive them on my laptop and necklace flash drive. Then it was go to bed -- I almost always got a reasonable night's sleep, but I ended up having very little idle time, either. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 04 JAN 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (6)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- BRIDGES & TUNNELS (6): Modern tunnel building uses either cut-and-fill techniques or tunnel-boring machines (TBMs). In cut-and-fill, the ground is dug up in a trench, the tunnel structure is laid down, and the trench is filled in again. A modern TBM is an automated monster, with a motorized cutting face and a conveyor belt to haul away the spoil. The lining is set up in the wake of the TBM, meaning it can't move backwards; since long tunnels are dug from both ends, that means the two TBMs have nowhere to go when they meet in the middle. They generally dig off to the side and are abandoned.

tunnel-boring machine

Planning the path for a tunnel under a river is a bit tricky. Obviously, the shorter the tunnel, the cheaper it is, but if it starts out on a riverbank, the slope of the entrance and exit of the tunnel would be much too steep. One trick is to build a big pit at each end and install a spiral ramp to get into and out of the tunnel. That flatly doesn't work for trains, and so train tunnels under rivers tend to be a bit rare.

One of the problems of driving into a tunnel in the daytime is that the lighting changes abruptly from bright to dark, which can lead to accidents. The same thing happens when exiting a tunnel in the dark. The usual scheme is to provide graduated lighting, bright after making the transition into the darkened region and dimming gradually to allow drivers to adjust. Drivers also tend to slow down when entering tunnels, which in congested traffic can lead to gridlock. The solution is similar to that increasing used on heavy-traffic freeway onramps: gate traffic with stop-go lights to regulate its flow through the tunnel.

A tunnel seems like a passive construct, but it still has a staffed control center, where the controllers keep an eye on traffic and conditions through TV cameras; inductive sensors in the roadway to track traffic flow; sensors to monitor carbon dioxide levels; and so on. The controllers have to communicate with drivers to report emergencies, and this is done with indicator signs or broadcast radio antennas built into the tunnel, with the appropriate channel provided by a sign on entry to the tunnel.

Some very long tunnels, like the English Channel Tunnel or "Chunnel", don't allow cars to be driven through the tunnel, instead loading them onto train cars for the journey, sort of like a ferry boat. The Chunnel has three tunnels, two for trains to permit bidirectional travel, and a third small tunnel between them for service and emergency refuge. There was a fire in the Chunnel in 1996; all the passengers and crew managed to escape into the service tunnel more or less unharmed. [END OF SET 10]

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[THU 03 JAN 08] METHANE FROM OIL & BACTERIA

* METHANE FROM OIL & BACTERIA: As reported in an article from BBC WORLD Online ("A Greener Way To Recover Methane"), with high oil prices, it has become more attractive to recover tarry low-grade crudes, but it is a troublesome and expensive process. Steam has to be pumped down to the deposits to loosen them so they can be pumped up, and this is not only technically difficult but energy intensive.

Now researchers believe they can take advantage of deep-underground microorganisms that thrive in hydrocarbon deposits. Such "anaerobic" (non-oxygen breathing) "archaeans" -- much like bacteria except for substantially different biochemistries -- can thrive at depths of 2 kilometers (6,560 feet) and 80 degrees Celsius (175 degrees Fahrenheit). The oil companies have known about these little beasties for a long time and have generally regarded them as a nuisance, since they digest the oil and convert it into methane -- natural gas. However, if such "methanogens", as they are known, are directly injected into deep underground deposits, the methane they produce is much easier to draw to the surface for use, and though burning it does produce carbon dioxide, the methane burns cleaner in general than oil.

The scheme was described in a paper in the prestigious science journal NATURE, written by Steve Larter, a petroleum geologist from the University of Calgary in Canada, and Martin Jones, from the University of Newcastle in the UK. Jones believes that microbe biodegradation could also be used to help extract more energy from depleted oil fields: "Typically more then half of the oil that is in the reservoir is left there after the field is exhausted. In cases where they can't get the oil out economically, then they could convert it to gas."

The two researchers believe that the growth of the methanogens could be promoted by feeding them nutrients such as phosphorus and some vitamins. Say Jones: "The microorganisms eat the oil, so there is plenty of food there, it is just the other smaller nutrients that would be needed to get them to grow quicker." The idea, he adds, is to speed up the process of digestion "from geological time to a human time-scale."

Of course, though methane burns cleaner, natural gas in general is a bit tricky to handle. If pipelines are available from oil fields it's not too troublesome, but otherwise it requires transport of methane in liquefied form in high-pressure tanks. There is some thought these days of catalytically converting natural gas into a diesel-like fuel for transport, but that is somewhat expensive and only practical if fuel prices stay high -- though few would bet they won't.

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[WED 02 JAN 08] BETTING THE FARM ON VIDEO GAMES

* BETTING THE FARM ON VIDEO GAMES: Once upon a time, a clever person with an imaginative idea for a new computer game could make a big hit in the game market on a shoestring budget. According to an article on BBC WORLD Online ("Cost Headache For Game Developers" by Yo Takatsuki), now producing a big hit game for Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 requires an investment more like that pumped into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Back in 1982, Namco of Japan introduced PACMAN, one of the most famous video games of all time, for only about $100,000 USD. Nowdays the average Playstation 3 game requires $15 million to develop -- OK, not in a league with a true Hollywood blockbuster movie, though certainly enough to produce a polished independent film. Microsoft's HALO 3 is estimated to have run to $30 million USD -- but it was a bargain at the price, since HALO 3 brought in $170 million in sales, which was a record for the most money made in one day by any entertainment product.

That's well and good for Microsoft, but the game market is competitive and the smaller companies are pressed to keep up, both in terms of maintaining the technical expertise and the marketing money required. One bust of a game introduction and a small company goes under. A spate of introductions for the holiday season is inevitably followed by a wave of bankruptcies in the new year.

Game consoles have been becoming increasingly sophisticated and powerful, in some specific ways much more powerful than personal computers. Says Philip Oliver, head of the Blitz Games company in the UK: "These costs have risen so sharply because of the complexity of the devices which we are writing the games for. The costs have risen most sharply on the graphics side. We have entered a new era of high-definition video gaming. This has led to team sizes having to increase in this area, for new tools to be created for this and generally the costs are rocketing. This is actually having a severe hit on the industry."

Worse, game developers have to try to stay on the leading edge of the latest game consoles, which leads to a quandary. The installed base of a brand new console is generally small, which means small sales of games optimized for them; a leading-edge console will likely become very popular, but then a game company has to be able to survive several years before game volumes for that console reach a profitable level.

One way to stay afloat is for a company to acquire specific expertise and then rent themselves out to companies that actually sell the games. This avoids "bet the farm" risks, but the outsourcing market is competitive as well; maintaining the technical edge and the reputation that goes along with it is difficult.

Professor Danny Quah of the London School of Economics says, in effect, that's life in the big digital city. With an ever-increasing reliance on software and the like, there's necessarily a big outlay in terms of research and development -- but manufacturing is almost free, just copying CDs and packaging them. Says Quah: "Because of these very high upfront fixed costs, the risks that these entrepreneurs have to undertake are likely expanded from before. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. The fact is that with risk comes reward, and the two go hand in hand."

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[TUE 01 JAN 08] THE LITTLE PEOPLE

* THE LITTLE PEOPLE: As reported by a short article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("Not So Tall Tale: Why Pygmies Evolved To Be Shorter" by Nikhil Swaminathan), everyone is familiar with the pygmies, a hunter-gatherer tribe from the jungles of Africa noted for their unusually small size, the men being no more than 150 centimeters (5 feet) tall and the women about 15 centimeters (6 inches) shorter. What comes as a surprise is that there are jungle tribes in Southeast Asia and South America of similar stature, though they're not any more closely related to the African pygmies.

Why should unrelated groups of people in different locations and of different stocks feature similar characteristics in similar environments? The traditional theory was that the small size allowed them to get by on less food, and it also helped them keep cool in hot tropical conditions. However, there are tribes from equally difficult environments, like the Masai of Kenya, that are very tall.

Now researchers from Cambridge University in the UK have come up with an evolutionary solution to the pygmy puzzle. Says Andrea Migliano of the Cambridge group: "After going to the Philippines and interviewing the pygmies, I noticed this very distinctive feature of the population: very high mortality rates. Then, going back to life history theory, we noticed that their small body size was really linked to high mortality."

The Cambridge researchers began by analyzing data from African pygmies; the Aeta and the Batak, two Philipino pygmy groups; the Masai; and malnourished Americans. The data showed something interesting: in their early years, the children of all the groups grew at about the same rate, but the pygmies flattened out at about age 13. The others kept on growing up to age 20. It wasn't that the pygmies grew more poorly, it was just that they stopped growing sooner.

The next item that popped out of the data was the shockingly short life expectancies of the pygmies, ranging from 16 to 24 depending on the group; disease is common in hot jungle environments and cuts down people in their prime. On top of that, pygmy women seemed to bear their first children in the their mid-teens, while it was the late teens for taller hunter-gatherer groups. What seems to be the case is that pygmies reach adulthood faster than other folk, allowing them to bear more children within their brief lifespans, though their growth rate remains the same. Those among their ancestors who matured later were simply outbred by those who matured earlier. This conclusion may have insights into the nature of the famous Homo floresiensis, the little "hobbit" prehumans whose fossil remains were found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

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