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DayVectors

apr 2008 / last mod jun 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: shipping & waste disposal infrastructure, Florida road trip again, technology & government survey, renewable energy in Germany, hemispherectomies (removal of a brain hemisphere), city wi-fi sees some successes, early electric bus fiasco, squabble over unclaimed gift card money, phone phreaking, Aptera electric car, "freeconomics", Boeing loses KC-45 tanker deal to EADS Airbus, no more cheap food, genetic ethnic tracing, and global struggle against smoking.

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[WED 30 APR 08] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2008
[TUE 29 APR 08] GREEN GERMANY
[MON 28 APR 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (2)
[FRI 25 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- WASTES & RECYCLING (1)
[THU 24 APR 08] ONLY HALF THERE
[WED 23 APR 08] CITY WI-FI WORKS, PARTLY
[TUE 22 APR 08] RIDE THE ELECTRIC BUS / WHO GETS THE MONEY?
[MON 21 APR 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (1)
[FRI 18 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (7)
[THU 17 APR 08] PHONE PHREAKING
[WED 16 APR 08] APTERA ROLLS
[TUE 15 APR 08] THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A FREE LUNCH
[MON 14 APR 08] TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (5)
[FRI 11 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (6)
[THU 10 APR 08] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 09 APR 08] SHOT DOWN
[TUE 08 APR 08] THE END OF CHEAP FOOD?
[MON 07 APR 08] TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (4)
[FRI 04 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (5)
[THU 03 APR 08] RACE & THE GENOME
[WED 02 APR 08] SMOKE SMOKE SMOKE THAT CIGARETTE
[TUE 01 APR 08] TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (3)

[WED 30 APR 08] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2008

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2008: In the wake of elections in Zimbabwe late in March in which the ruling ZANU-PF party suffered a resounding parliamentary defeat, the government under Robert Mugabe went into defensive mode, refusing to discuss the presidential vote. To nobody's surprise, Mugabe made it clear he wasn't going to give up power voluntarily and proclaimed that Zimbabwe's problems were all due to the meddling of outsiders, with the British getting special treatment in Mugabe's denunciations.

In mid-April, a Chinese freighter arrived in South Africa loaded with millions of rounds of automatic rifle ammunition, plus rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds. The shipment had been ordered just after the elections, and the fact that Zimbabwe was not under any real foreign military threat made the implication that the munitions were intended to suppress "unrest" hard to avoid. South African dock workers refused to handle the cargo and a South African court refused to allow transfer of the cargo through South Africa to landlocked Zimbabwe. The freighter then left port, apparently bound for Mozambique; activists promised to pressure the government there to embargo the ship as well.

Hospitals in Zimbabwe have been filling up with opposition party supporters, who claimed they were savagely beaten by police and that a number of people were killed in beatings. Although African leaders have painfully patient with Mugabe, support for his regime has now become an extreme embarrassment, and there are signs the patience is starting to finally run out. African leaders called for all nations to refuse to accept the ammunition being carried by the Chinese ship. Kofi Annan has called for a solution to the problem.

* In an interesting editorial, THE ECONOMIST commented on the world's expectations of a kinder, gentler America in the post-Bush era -- which concluded that though the US brand name is almost certainly going to improve, anyone thinking that there's going to be a complete makeover should think again. America is confronted with a number of global challenges that will be just as formidable to the incoming administration as they were to the Bush II Administration, and there will be no pleasing everybody in the way those challenges are met.

To be sure, George W. Bush is very unpopular abroad and few non-Americans will be unhappy to see him go. However, much of what made the Bush II Administration unpopular early on was its blatant contempt for diplomacy, and its related tendency to wield the iron fist without bothering with the velvet glove. The administration learned better and became far more diplomatic in its second term, and so the shift to a new administration will not be as dramatic as it might have been if George W. Bush had been voted out in 2004.

There are certainly a few things the incoming president can do that will burnish the American image around the world, for example shut down Guantanamo; make absolutely clear that torture and CIA rendition are beyond the pale; come out forthrightly against global warming; and re-establish American credibility in international forums. However, even this short list only goes so far. Reports indicate that Guantanamo is not the hellhole that it once was, and shutting it down means getting rid of the inmates -- it may not be popular just to ship them back to countries where the treatment they'll get will make Guantanamo look like a picnic, and on the other hand it might not be all that reassuring to just let them loose. Coming out forthrightly against global warming may sound inspiring, but though the White House has great power, it's not enough power to impose solutions that Congress and the American public don't like.

In international forums, the incoming administration will of course have as its first priority the interests of the USA. The administration should hopefully have an enlightened and long-range view of American interests, be considerate and respectful of allies, and be able to express its views in a diplomatic fashion -- but it is still the job of the administration to do what is good for America, not do what will sell to folks overseas. As 19th-century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said, more or less: "We have no permanent friends, only permanent interests."

The new administration will face the same challenges -- an insurgency in Afghanistan, a cranky and authoritarian Russia, an economically aggressive and even more authoritarian China, the endlessly impossible Israeli-Palestinian quarrel, rising energy and food prices, global warming, and so on -- as the old administration. The war in Iraq, almost unarguably the worst sore point with the USA internationally at present, is not going to go away the day after the new president takes the oath of office. It will be good to have a new president who is not carrying around the excess baggage of Bush II administration's unarguably bumbled conquest of the county, but that's all water under the bridge now, the only serious issue is what to do next. The new president will certainly get some bonus points up front on the international stage after taking office, particularly if the president is female or a person of color. However, that honeymoon promises to be short-lived.

* In news from the fringe, an inquest in the UK into the death of Princess Diana and her companion Dodi Al Fayed in August 1997 in a Paris car crash concluded to the surprise of no one with any sense that it was a dreadful accident, not an act of murder. Dodi's father Mohamed Al Fayed had been pushing wild conspiracy theories, claiming that the deaths had been ordered by the Duke of Edinburgh and carried out by British secret intelligence (MI6). The coroner, Lord Baker, said that evidence and testimony from more than 250 witnesses showed the conspiracy theories were "so demonstrably without foundation" that even Mohamed Al Fayed's lawyer was no longer pursuing them. Lord Baker described some of the witnesses who had fed the conspiracy theories through "red herrings" as "liars by their own admission."

Mohamed Al Fayed said he would abide by the decision of the jury in the inquest, and Lord Baker said he believed that all the other interested parties would follow suit. The jury decision was actually almost irrelevant, since the jury was flatly told that a murder conspiracy was not among the list of possible verdicts -- all they could do was select among a set of five accident scenarios. Why Mohamed Al Fayed, no doubt a highly intelligent and competent man, pursued the conspiracy theories around the bend is a bit hard to understand. One can sympathize with the grief of a father over the death of his son, but why that should have been translated into an insistence that it couldn't have been just a tragic idiot matter of chance and blundering, that somebody had to be responsible, is a bit hard to understand.

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[TUE 29 APR 08] GREEN GERMANY

* GREEN GERMANY: Environmental consciousness might not seem like part of the German stereotype, but as reported in an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Wind At Germany's Back" by Jack Ewing, 11 February 2008), taking a boat trip along Germany northern coast or a train ride over the flat plains between Hanover and Berlin suggests that is an omission. The terrain is littered with wind turbines, which contribute an impressive 7% of Germany's electric power needs.

German wind power

Thanks to government support, Germany now generates more wind power than any other country. Germany's energy laws guarantee operators of renewable energy systems above-market prices for power for as long as 20 years. Few other nations have been as clear and consistent in their renewable energy policies as Germany. With skyrocketing energy prices, the government's regulatory gamble has paid off.

According to government statistics, the German renewable energy business employs more than 235,000 people and has annual sales of the equivalent of $33 billion USD. There are almost 60 companies in Germany in the wind power business, with the national leader, Enercom, fighting it out with General Electric's windpower unit and Spain's Gamesa for the number-two slot in the global windpower market. The global leader, Vestas of Denmark, does a considerable amount of manufacturing in Germany, as does GE's wind power unit.

Despite the fact that Germany is stereotypically gray and damp, the energy law has also boosted solar cell manufacture. Almost 100 German companies are involved in the business, mostly clustered in an area in the old East Germany now called "Solar Valley" -- with the infusion of such high-tech solar industries being particularly welcome in the traditionally economically laggard east. One of the companies, Q-Cell, is second only to Japan's Sharp in solar cell production.

The situation is encouraging for Germany, but there is the issue of staying ahead. While Germany is the king of wind power at present, the US market is growing faster and, given current trends, will take the lead in the future. Germans involved in the renewable energy business are not dismayed, believing their investments in future renewable energy technologies are certain to pay off. Says Anton Miller, the CEO of Q-Cells: "This industry is still in the warmup phase."

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[MON 28 APR 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (2)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (2): I came up with the plan for a return trip to Florida in early February and thought I had plenty of time to set up the journey. That didn't quite prove to be the case -- various things, such as getting my taxes done, bit into the time, and then at the end of February I got a summons for jury duty, dictating that I report to the judicial center in Fort Collins, Colorado, north up the road from Loveland, on 17 March.

I wouldn't have tried to dodge the jury duty even if I could have legally said "no thanks", but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it -- it sounded like a lot of bureaucracy. I didn't really know how much time it would get into, so I knew that the trip had to be in place by the 17th. By the second week of March I had all the planning nailed down, including hotel reservations, advance tickets where necessary, operating times and admission prices to the visit sites, maps to locate everything -- including restaurants and Walmarts here and there.

I piled up maps until I could go through them and trace out all my movements with enough confidence to think I wasn't going to get lost. As with the previous trip, I concluded that though the internet is irreplaceable, we've still got a long ways to go on making it workable, since the websites varied significantly in ease of use, down into the "broken" category at the bottom. I think the technology's there, the problem is that people have trouble figuring how to apply it.

I did find out after the trip was over that the system only works too well for scammers, since I got ripped off. I wanted to get a reservation for a Best Western motel in Orlando and googled "Best Western Orlando". I didn't realize that adding the "Orlando" to the search was a blunder. I got what looked like a Best Western website and made a reservation, receiving a confirmation email in response. Then I changed my plans and decided to cancel. I contacted Best Western online and they didn't recognize my reservation confirmation number -- I was informed I was dealing with a booking agency and I needed to talk to them about it.

I traced back through my website travels and managed to find the bogus "Best Western" website again. In hindsight I should have been much more suspicious than I was. I managed to get them to cancel the reservation and got a confirmation email. The confirmation emails had no contact information in them, incidentally, which should have made me even more suspicious. After I was sorting through my VISA charges later, I found that the booking agency had billed me for my stay immediately and never returned the money.

I like to read about scams and I'm generally familiar with them, but the "bogus hotel reservation" scam was a new one on me. The trick is that if a mark googles on "hotel chain name PLUS city name" the scammers have that search "loaded" to vector the mark to the "bogus hotel chain" website, which will have a URL of the form "www.hotelchainnamecityname.com". If I'd just googled on "hotel chain name" and not added the city name I'd have had no problems. Google spends a lot of effort trying to keep scammers from gaming their system, but Google apparently hasn't figured out this one yet.

I was a bit surprised I didn't know about it, since it seems to be a large scale scam -- I would bet there are dummy websites for all the major hotel chains, and even restricting them to the major tourist destinations means a matrix of hundreds, possibly thousands of dummy websites -- "hiltonnyc.com", "marriotseattle.com", "radissionsandiego.com", and so on. It wasn't a big deal, I challenged the credit card billing and got my money back. I suspect that the scammers were expecting me to do so: along with a skim off the top for "agent fees", by billing the marks immediately and not paying for the hotel until the date came due, the scammers were able to "float" the funds in a bank account and make interest off them. A few million pipelined through an account on a continuous basis would make some good easy money.

My credit union suggested I update my debit card, but though these outfits are sleazy, they don't break the law. Their operation is too elaborate to run on a fly-by-night basis, so though they cheat people, they never actually go on to actual theft, which would allow criminal charges to be pressed. They had my credit card number for long enough to clean me out anyway, so I didn't bother to update the card. Just to be careful, I kept a close eye on my checking account.

* Incidentally, when I showed up for jury duty I wasn't selected, and even if I had it was just a drunk-driving case, it wouldn't have lasted more than a day. The procedures for handling the jury were very well-thought-out; I guess with people coming and going every day they would have been nailed down long ago. I was astounded that I was almost the only person who showed up for the jury wearing a tie. To each their own, but I couldn't consider walking into a court of law wearing bluejeans -- though I was wearing a Western-style vest with golden dragon patterns, flashy by my standards, since I didn't want to look like a missionary.

All worked out well, by law I couldn't be called to jury duty again for a year. Now all I had to do was pack up for the trip, wax up the car good, and so on. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 25 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- WASTES & RECYCLING (1)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- WASTES & RECYCLING (1): The final chapter of Brian Hayes' INFRASTRUCTURE concerns wastes and recycling. The other chapters generally discussed the production and use of objects; at the end of the cycle, however, these objects have to be disposed of. This leads to the odd situation in which in the end most objects end up having "negative value" -- that is, we have to pay to get someone to take them off our hands.

Hayes mentioned chatting with a chemical engineer who said he had managed to increase the yield of a production process from 98% to 99%. Hayes commented that a 1% increase didn't seem all that significant. The chemical engineer agreed that was true from the production standpoint, but the important fact was that the waste had been cut in half -- meaning the disposal costs had been cut in half as well.

In any case, like all professional groups, the waste-disposal industry has its own terminology. "Trash" to a professional is the dry stuff we throw out, like discarded packages, junk mail, empty cans and so on, while "garbage" is the wet stuff, such as discarded food, coffee grounds, and the like. Together they make up "refuse"; the term "rubbish" is similar but may include debris from construction or building demolition. However, most professionals refer to the stuff they deal with as "municipal solid waste (MSW)". Americans dispose of about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of MSW a day. The level has been constant since about 1990; it seems to have been lower for a few decades before then, but that may just be an artifact of statistics.

In most American municipalities, the operation in charge of disposing of MSW is called the "Department of Sanitation". In the early days, the main job of the department was street cleaning, not refuse pickup, but that was because most people simply threw their refuse into the streets, and it had to be removed before it buried the city. In the days when horse transportation was common, cleaning the streets also meant cleaning up mounds of horse turds.

In modern days, sanitation workers don't normally worry much about having to clean up after horses, and they also have better tools. The basic municipal sanitation tool is the "compactor truck", which was invented in the 1930s and became commonplace in the 1950s. Traditionally, a compactor truck consists of a truck with a hopper in the back, with the refuse dumped into the hopper. A steel blade driven by hydraulic rams then compacts the refuse to about half of its original volume. When the truck is full, it goes to the landfill and dumps the load, with hydraulics lifting up the hopper assembly and shoving the compacted refuse out.

More recent innovations have focused on improving worker productivity. For example, "stand-up" trucks have places where the loaders can stand, so they don't have to keep getting in and out of the truck. Another innovation is a special cart that can be picked up by mechanical arms and dumped into the hopper. That's not really all that new an idea, incidentally -- "dumpsters", big metal refuse bins that are picked up and dumped into a compactor truck, have been around for decades, normally being associated with facilities like hospitals or schools or office buildings. The only real innovation these days is that the same concept is being used to pick up household refuse, using much smaller plastic bins.

Mack trash hauler

In some localities, the landfill is well away from the service area, and it makes no sense for the compactor trucks to drive for hours on freeway just to dump their loads. They dump them instead at a "transfer station", where the refuse is then loaded onto tractor-trailers, rail cars, or barges, which then take it to the landfill. A transfer station has two levels, the upper level being known as the "tipping floor", since it's where the loads are dumped. The lower level is a chute that leads to the trailers or whatever that haul off the refuse. Loaders or bulldozers shove the refuse from the tippling floor into the chute, with hydraulic rams compacting it. Transfer stations are noisy, smelly places inside, but little noise or odor escapes -- the neighbors might complain. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 24 APR 08] ONLY HALF THERE

* ONLY HALF THERE: An essay in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Do You Need Only Half Your Brain?" by Charles Q. Quoi, March 2008) provided a glimpse of a more than slightly drastic surgical procedure known as "hemispherectomy", which involves removal of one of the two brain hemispheres. Although the idea sounds appalling, the operation has been successfully performed hundreds of times.

The first recorded hemispherectomy was performed on an unfortunate dog in 1888 by a German physiologist named Friedrich Goltz. A neurosurgeon named Walter Dandy performed the first hemispherectomy on a human at Johns Hopkins University in 1923 to treat a patient with a brain tumor; the patient survived for three more years before cancer finally killed him. Hemispherectomies finally came into their own in 1938, when Canadian neurosurgeon Kenneth McKenzie performed the operation on a 16-year-old girl who was suffering from uncontrollable seizures. McKenzie reported that the seizures stopped.

The procedure is now performed on patients who are undergoing repeated seizures every day that will not respond to medication, due to defects in one brain hemisphere, with the condition promising to progress to damaging the other hemisphere. There are two approaches: in an "anatomical" hemispherectomy, an entire brain hemisphere is removed; in a "functional" hemispherectomy, only parts of a brain hemisphere are removed, and the "corpus callosum" -- the neural bridge between the brain hemispheres -- is cut. Some doctors prefer anatomical hemispherectomies just to make absolutely sure they nail the problem; others prefer functional hemispherectomies because they involve less blood loss -- an important factor, since many patients who undergo hemispherectomies are under two years of age, and they have less blood to lose.

The procedure is highly effective in eliminating seizures, and the patients remain mentally capable, for example acquiring college degrees or participating in chess tournaments. However, loss of half the brain means significant loss of control over half the body. Patients can still walk, run, or even dance, but they lose control over the hand on the opposite side of the body relative to the brain hemisphere removed. If the left hemisphere is removed, there may be problems with speech.

The younger the patient undergoing the procedure, the less the long-term disability. Neuroscientists find patients who have undergone hemispherectomies to be fascinating test subjects for investigations of brain function. This clinical attitude does not change the fact that a hemispherectomy is an extremely drastic measure, and never performed except as a last resort.

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[WED 23 APR 08] CITY WI-FI WORKS, PARTLY

* CITY WI-FI WORKS, PARTLY: Not long ago, there was a burst of enthusiasm among municipalities to install city-wide wi-fi wireless communications networks. While the effort has been marked by some widely publicized failures, according to an article on CNET NEWS Online ("Citywide Wi-Fi Isn't Dead Yet", by Marguerite Reardon), a number of US cities -- including Corpus Christi, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- report some quiet success with the scheme.

The major lesson has been that such schemes need to have a clear and concrete mission, coupled to a well-thought-out business plan for building and sustaining the wi-fi network. Says an industry observer: "Cities that have seen early success have been able to articulate very clearly to politicians and citizens how the network will be used and how it will benefit people, and they've also had clear business plans for paying for the networks."

Corpus Christi's involvement began with a simple practical problem: the city wanted to give utility workers the ability to read water and gas meters remotely. The city soon expanded the scope of its network to also enable building inspectors, building code enforcers, police, firefighters and emergency medical crews to communicate wirelessly with each other; now wi-fi is also used to keep tabs on city property, such as vehicles, and support surveillance cameras. In early 2007, the city sold off the network to Earthlink, which not only handles the city wi-fi services but sells connections to residents for $20 USD a month.

Minneapolis also built its city network with the goal of using it for public safety and to link city agencies. USI Wireless, which the city contracted to implement the network, only had a small part of it in place in August 2007, when a bridge collapse got national headlines. The network, even though it was incomplete, proved extremely useful in rescue and recovery efforts following the disaster.

Philadelphia, which began work on its wi-fi network in 2006, was less interested in supporting city services than in providing high-speed internet access to poorer citizens. Earthlink won the contract to build and run the network; it's not complete yet, but the company says there are already thousands of subscribers. While Earthlink runs the network at a profit, the company also pumps funds back into the city's nonprofit group Wireless Philadelphia, which subsidizes wi-fi service to Philadelphia's low-income households, and helps provide training and equipment.

* The Philadelphia experiment was one of the pioneers, and it set off a wave of enthusiasm among cities to implement wi-fi networks. That wasn't a bad thing in itself, but many of the cities decided they wanted to provide "free wi-fi for all", supported by business models reminiscent of some of the candyfluff schemes floating around just before the collapse of the dot-com bubble some years back. Earthlink, which bid on some of these projects, soon saw them as "organized to fail" and backtracked. With the withdrawal of Earthlink, many cities put their wi-fi plans on ice while city officials rethought matters.

Some municipalities are still moving forward, or at least trying to. Efforts are underway to establish a wi-fi network all through the San Francisco Bay Area, though given the bad taste the wi-fi network fiascoes left behind it's been an uphill struggle to get backing. Once sensible business models are in place, however, citywide wi-fi has a good chance of getting back on track.

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[TUE 22 APR 08] RIDE THE ELECTRIC BUS / WHO GETS THE MONEY?

* RIDE THE ELECTRIC BUS: Electric vehicles are nothing new, goodly numbers of them having been produced in the early days of the automobile until gasoline-powered cars pushed them off the road. As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("What Is This That Roareth Thus?", 8 September 2007), one of the early electric vehicle schemes has a surprisingly modern sound to it.

The London Electrobus Company started operations with its first passenger on 15 July 1907. From a modern standpoint, the operation might seem dodgy; each bus required a pack of lead-acid batteries that weighed 1.5 tonnes (1.66 tons) and could only get about 60 kilometers (38 miles) on a charge. However, urban transport wasn't as well-refined in those days, people weren't in as big a hurry, and 60 kilometers was about a half-day's driving. At midday, the electrobus went back to the garage, where the old battery pack was efficiently yanked out and a fresh one put in its place. The bus was quiet and didn't emit noxious exhaust fumes; it was, by the standards of the time, an advanced and well-engineered piece of technology.

Alas, two years later the London Electrobus Company went bankrupt. The story, such as it is remembered, is often regarded as a tale of a technology that was too much too soon, but in hindsight the buses were perfectly workable. The problem was that the London Electrobus Company wasn't, or at least it wasn't workable in terms of delivering a real service: it was part of a network of front companies being manipulated by a German con artist named Edward Lehwess. Lehwess, working through frontmen, promoted the company to investors to skim off the money pumped into the operation. The Electrobus company bought its buses from the Electric Vehicle Company, which was also a Lehwess front, with the buses purchased at a huge markup. When the Electrobus company finally folded Lehwess, who apparently had thought the scheme out from birth to afterlife, bought the liquidated buses and sold them at a huge markup. Lehwess wasn't honest, but he was certainly competent in his line of work.

A number of cities are turning to electric buses nowdays, using much improved technology. Some suggest that if it had not been for Lehwess, electric buses might have become a common technology through the 20th century. That's hard to prove, but he couldn't have done the idea any good, either.

* WHO GETS THE MONEY? In the "things you never thought of" category, an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Scramble For Gift-Card Cash" by Nanette Byrnes, 4 February 2008), shined a light on the fact that while gift cards are very popular, the recipients of the cards don't always use them. The total sales of gift cards in America in 2007 ran to about $97 billion USD -- but about $8 billion USD of that went unclaimed. People lose the cards, or don't make full use of them before the cards finally hit their time limits.

gift cards

That's not such a surprise in hindsight, but it gets more interesting when the implications are considered. About half of gift-card sales are in the pre-Christmas season, and they're usually redeemed by the end of January. One of the peculiarities of selling a gift card is that legally a retailer can't claim its sale as revenue until the card's cashed in -- the card's effectively a chit for products sold by the company, and until the company delivers actual products, the transaction isn't complete. The good thing about this is that it gives the retailer a boost in revenue after Christmas, which is traditionally a slack season. The bad thing is that an unclaimed card means no transaction, leaving the money taken in up-front by the retailer in legal limbo.

Retailers of course would like to be able to just keep the money, but alas it's not that simple -- with $8 billion USD floating around, there's no way it could be. Some US states, such as Florida and Virginia, allow the retailers to keep the money after a periods of three to seven years; other states, such as Delaware and New York, say they are entitled to the money after two to five years, on the basis of "unclaimed property" laws. This can get deviously complicated if a retailer in one state sells a gift card that ends up in the hands of recipients in another. State government officials have in some cases been lobbying for consistent Federal standards to clarify such issues.

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[MON 21 APR 08] FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (1)

* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (1): I didn't get all the pix I took on my September 2007 Florida road trip -- discussed here from late last year -- sorted out until well into March 2008. It was a lot of work, but the payoff was good. The nagging problem as I closed toward completion of the exercise was that there was a number of things I had missed on the trip.

While sleeping on it I got to thinking: why not do it again and pick up the stuff I dropped? That seemed absurd at first -- after the obnoxious follow-up trip to California I figured I'd had enough of long road trips -- but the more I thought about it, the more attractive it seemed. I didn't have any other big trip on the horizon, and I got to tinkering with things and saw there was a lot of new sights I could pick up this time around.

I finally realized that, all the predictable inconveniences aside, I had really enjoyed the first Florida trip, and looked forward to doing it again. I thought of making it in September, but then I thought: why wait? Just do it and be done with it. March was too early, weather in the Midwest might be a problem and I would run into the "spring break" crowd in Florida, but I could go in April. Then I got to thinking about the swarms of love bugs pelting my car as I drove along the Gulf Coast and checked on Wikipedia for when they come of the woodwork; the article said late April, so I figured early April would be preferable.

I had been thinking of revisiting Kennedy Space Center to get the bus tour and visit the Air Force Missile Museum on Cape Canaveral, but on trying to wade through the KSC Visitor's Center website to figure out how, all I got was hyperlinks going in circles. The site looks slick, but it had clearly been designed by people who hadn't bothered to get a reality check with users. I'd given up trying to visit museums on military bases some time back -- it's not worth their hassle to deal with me, it's not worth mine to deal with them. This wasn't quite the same thing, but I scratched KSC off the list.

In compensation, while I was thinking out the trip, I ran across a mention of the Sun 'N Fun Air Museum in Lakeland, between Orlando and Tampa. I had missed it during the September trip .... then I remembered: isn't there a big national fly-in at Sun 'N Fun in April? I checked, and by coincidence it was to be going on right when I was in the area. OK, add another day and a big airshow. I came up with a plan for a ten-day trip -- one day less than the September trip -- that gave me a total of 15 stops: one theme park (counting all of Disney as one), one natural history museum, three air museums, two aquariums, and eight zoos. Of the stops, only five would be revisits. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 18 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (7)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (7): There are roadsigns on navigable waterways, just as there are on roads, in the form of "buoys" and "channel markers". Such markers are needed to prevent traffic jams or collisions, and to keep vessels from running up on shoals or other obstructions.

The markers are color-coded. In the US, the rule is that when entering a channel, the path taken puts red signs to the right. When leaving the channel, green signs are to the right. The signs are numbered sequentially to allow a navigator to determine the progress of the vessel through the channel, and the signs may also have red or green lights, with coded pulse patterns.

The rules of navigation get tricky when the channel is bidirectional, for example in the case of a channel between a coast and an island, making "entering" and "leaving" more confusing than it is with a harbor. Extra yellow signs are used in such cases. To make matters more bewildering, while the US rules apply to the entire Western Hemisphere and to many Asian nations, Europe uses a different and generally reversed system. In busy harbors, signs aren't adequate to ensure traffic safety, and so such ports have traffic-control facilities, with equipment and authority comparable to those of an air traffic control facilities.

* The most classic maritime navigational aid is the lighthouse. Like tugboats, lighthouses have a certain romance to them, though unlike tugboats they also make good environments for suspense and horror stories. These days, lighthouses are almost always automated facilities, no more romantic than a light tower at an airport. Old lighthouses are still often maintained as local landmarks and tourist attractions.

lighthouse

Most long-range maritime navigation is now performed with radio navigation systems. The granddaddy of them all is "LORAN", developed during World War II for air and sea navigation. Although LORAN remained in service to the end of the 20th century and was complemented by other radio navigation systems, LORAN is now more or less obsolete, its function being performed by the GPS navigation satellite system. [END OF SET 12]

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[THU 17 APR 08] PHONE PHREAKING

* PHONE PHREAKING: WIRED magazine likes to provide coverage about the cybercrime underground, and an article published on the WIRED Online site ("Teenage Hacker Is Blind, Brash And In The Crosshairs Of The FBI" by Kevin Poulson) took a look at "phone phreaks", the hackers who like to penetrate the phone system.

Phone phreaking is nothing new; it's been around for decades, by cybercrime standards it's ancient. It's been overshadowed by spamming and computer malware attacks, but it's still alive and well, as demonstrated by a phone call picked up by the El Paso County, Colorado, sheriff's office on 1 May 2005. The call was apparently from the Colorado Springs home of Richard Gasper, a security screener at the municipal airport. The caller said he had taken the family hostage: "I will shoot. I'm not afraid. I will shoot, and then I will kill myself, because I don't care." The police raided the house, holding Gaspar for 90 minutes while they searched the house and found nothing wrong, just an alarmed family that was wondering what was going on.

What was going on was an increasingly popular prank called "swatting", in which crisis calls are placed with law enforcement offices reporting fake murders and hostage incidents. The caller IDs are spoofed so that the call actually appears to originate from the caller's home. The result has been SWAT teams busting into houses where the residents are watching TV or eating dinner. A number of people have got hurt.

The US Federal Bureau Of Investigation (FBI) got a lead on the Colorado Springs swatting, believing it to be the work of a 17-year-old East Boston phone phreak known as "Li'l Hacker", who's real name is Matthew -- the last name was not provided in the article since he is a minor. Matt, who was born blind, got into phone phreaking when he was 14, and those familiar with him say the Colorado Springs prank was one of the least of his efforts. Says a fellow phone phreak: "Who's the best out there? The little blind kid is one of the best. And that's a fact."

Matt got into phone phreaking out of curiosity and then fell in with a bad crowd. In late 2007, the FBI busted a gang of phone phreaks that had conducted swatting pranks in over 60 cities, targeting hundreds of victims and piling up about a quarter million dollars in losses. The phone phreaks filled in the FBI about Matt. All those familiar with him describe him as a genius, able to pick up torrents of information immediately, and with a keen ability to manipulate people and organizations.

* Matt got into phone phreaking in late 2004, when a neighbor gave him the number of a telephone party line called the "Boston Raven". Party lines used to be phone lines shared by several households; these days, they're privately-run teleconferencing facilities. They've been around since the 1980s, though in the old days they could only handle a few callers. Now the number of callers is effectively unlimited, and like online live chat, they have different "chat rooms" for different subgroups.

On the party line, Matt's blindness was irrelevant, and he had some unusual skills that he could bring to the environment. Along with his ability to quickly learn and remember detailed information, he was also an excellent voice actor, capable of convincingly impersonating women or older men. Matt ran into phone phreaks on the Boston Raven and started picking up tricks.

Not all phone phreaks are malevolent, some just like to probe the phone system out of curiosity, and Matt was able to obtain significant technical information on the party line. Then he ran into a gang of about a half-dozen phone phreaks who called themselves "the Wrecking Crew" or "the Cavalry", led by a middle-aged ex-con named Stuart Rosoff. The Wrecking Crew really wasn't out to make money, being more focused on victimizing people who annoyed them on the party lines. Their favorite tactic was swatting: they used a commercial caller ID spoofing service named "SpoofCard" to send dummy alarm calls to police departments around the country, resulting in SWAT team raids.

Rosoff hassled Matt and goaded him to get into phone pranks. There was nothing particularly new about the tricks -- it seems that phone system security hasn't advanced much over the past few decades -- but Matt was a quick study and enthusiastic. Others on the party line warned Matt he was looking for trouble, but the boy was cocky and arrogant, and the Wrecking Crew was telling him things like he was immune from prosecution: "You don't have to worry about this, you're a blind kid, you're a minor."

He then met Danielle Gasper, Richard Gasper's teenage daughter, on a party line. They chatted pleasantly for a time, then Matt started getting sleazy and obnoxious with her, calling the girl in the dark hours of the morning to talk dirty to her. Matt got her father instead, who was less than polite in his responses. Matt threatened to retaliate, and the next thing Richard Gasper knew law enforcement was raiding his house. Of course Gasper told the authorities about Matt, and the FBI started checking up on him. Matt denied any wrongdoing, though those who knew him from party lines said he was often vocal about what he was going to do to those who crossed him. One said: "He was a raving lunatic ... he could decide he doesn't like you, and he could make your life a living hell, and there's nothing you could do about it." Others suggested there was a severe disconnect between Matt's obvious intelligence and his equally obvious lack of judgement. It wasn't like he was making any money off of his phone pranks; the only thing he was getting out of it was a sense of power at being a nuisance.

After a while he started branching out from swatting, moving on to figure out how to penetrate the Verizon phone system, using his voice acting skills to enlist gullible employees into helping his phreaking. He penetrated AT&T's network by stealing the identity of a real phone company security agent named William Jones. He still liked to pull pranks, for example getting AT&T to disconnect the phone of a party line enemy, claiming his adversary was a phone fraudster. Matt acquired a huge reputation in the phone phreak community, with a lot of urban folktales making the rounds: he'd supposedly taken control of a hotel elevator, for example, making it shuttle up and down continuously; he'd hacked his school's PBX (site phone branch exchange) to make it ring all the phones; and even got a phone company worker out of bed in the middle of the night to disconnect somebody's phone.

Matt's family knew he was interested in the phone system and would help him in his efforts, though they didn't seem to quite understand what exactly he was doing with his knowledge. Eventually, the Wrecking Crew started targeting Matt's mother and wouldn't leave her alone, and the family began to realize something was clearly not right.

However, the Wrecking Crew's days were numbered. They'd been getting away with their pranks because individually their actions were misdemeanors, and nobody had put the pieces together. On 1 October 2006, one of the Wrecking Crew swatted a female party line participant named Stephanie Proulx. One of the detectives who went on the raid to her apartment realized the same place had been targeted before, and asked Proulx what was going on. She told him about Rosoff and the Wrecking Crew; the detective contacted FBI agent Allyn Lynd of the agency's Dallas cybercrime squad.

Lynd, who was very experienced, got in touch with security officials at Verizon and AT&T, tracking down the activities of the Wrecking Crew. He then ran across Matt's activities, talking to the Colorado Springs sheriff's department about the 2005 swatting incident. Lynd visited Rosoff, who was in jail in Ohio on phone harassment charges, in late November 2006, and it appears Rosoff started singing. Two weeks later, the FBI visited Matt's Boston apartment. Matt was very forthcoming about the activities of the Wrecking Crew, but refused to say anything about what he had been up to.

Lynd was not particularly eager to jump on Matt, believing the boy was more valuable as an informant than as a jailbird, and that having been confronted with the possibility of prosecution was likely to mend his ways. However, the phone companies were also wise to Matt by that time and were tracking his activities. When Matt started playing the same old pranks again, they called Lynd. The FBI agent warned Matt that he was going to lose his protected status as an informant if he kept up his bad ways, but Matt just couldn't stop himself. He continued with the games and the FBI began to work towards an indictment against him.

The problem was that Matt was an addict. He really didn't have anything else to do with his time other than play phone phreak; he didn't know how to do anything else. Rosoff had a point when he told Matt that being a juvenile provided some protection, since the Federal government rarely goes after juveniles and is usually lenient with them. What complicated matters was that there's no Federal law against fraudulent phone calls; the government instead claimed that Matt violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by conning phone company workers to access their computer systems in his behalf, in effect hacking computers by proxy. Federal prosecutors were not entirely confident in this ploy and also knew that prosecuting minors can be troublesome.

In the meantime, all the Wrecking Crew had been taken into custody. They pleaded guilty and began to sing on each other; all of them named Matt as a co-conspirator. The FBI is continuing to follow up their actions against the phone phreaks, and the phone companies still have Matt in their crosshairs. By all evidence, he's still up to the same tricks; he just can't stop. Matt turned 18 on 7 April and is no longer a minor. Legally speaking, that doesn't make much difference with regards to crimes committed as a minor -- but few think Matt will be able to restrain himself, and any new crimes he commits are likely to get him in very hot water.

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[WED 16 APR 08] APTERA ROLLS

* APTERA ROLLS: As reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Electric Vehicles", 30 October 2007), a California startup named Aptera -- after a class of wingless insects including such species as springtails -- is now working on an electric vehicle for the masses named, of course, the Aptera. There are other California firms working on electric cars, such as the Tesla electric sports car, but Aptera is setting their sights lower: a Tesla sells for $98,000 USD, while an Aptera will go for $26,900.

Aptera

That is still a pretty stiff pricetag for a three-wheel two-seater. The Aptera does have some sex appeal: it resembles a wingless aircraft, with every thought given to aerodynamics. It has no rear-view mirrors; there's a wide-angle camera in the rear instead. The three-wheel configuration allows the machine to avoid burdensome Federal regulations that would increase its weight. It has a lightweight external shell made of carbon-fiber composite, though the passenger compartment is surrounded by an internal safety cell built of aluminum and steel trusses. Maximum speed is 150 KPH (95 MPH) and range on a battery charge is 200 kilometers (120 miles). The company is also working on a hybrid with a one-cylinder piston engine that drives an electric generator; that model can get 1,130 kilometers (700 miles) from a tank of gas.

Small startups find it easier to build a car these days because of the availability of computer-aided design software that allows a car to be designed in detail, even crash-tested, before cutting hardware. Electric cars are also becoming more practical as critical subassemblies, such as lithium batteries, become cheaper and easier to obtain.

Work on the Aptera is being partly driven by the Automotive X Prize (AXP), which is offering $10 million USD for a 100 MPG car, with the winner to be determined in a 2010 competition on a 1,600 kilometer (1,000 mile) tour course. The competition will rate cars not merely on mileage, but also on overall emissions and commercial viability -- one-off unmarketable toys are not the objective. The big car makers are not getting involved with the AXP, since $10 million USD is pretty small beer to them, but they are following the effort with interest.

* Electric cars have been a nonstarter for decades, and skeptics suspect the Aptera may be the next in a long line of duds. [ED: It went belly-up a few years later.] However, along with the availability of better technology, there is a clear public interest to boost the cause of electric cars, and there is a global litter of startups working on such vehicles.

BUSINESS WEEK had a related article on the efforts of Israeli-born entrepreneur Shai Agassi, who has sold the Israeli government on the idea of converting the entire nation to electric cars. He has worked with Renault-Nissan on the design of an electric car; more importantly, he is mapping out a business plan in which users buy a car, but don't buy the expensive battery pack with it. The battery pack "belongs" to a network of "service stations", which swap out drained battery packs for fresh charged packs and sent the driver on his or her way. The network will also include public charging stations that look like parking meters.

The network will be supported by a monthly subscription fee, in much the same way a user pays a monthly fee for cellphone use. According to Agassi's figures, this scheme makes an electric car cheaper to buy and operate than a gasoline-powered car. The main technology challenge in the exercise is to standardize battery packs and design an efficient way to swap them out; however, one of the attractions is that as improved battery technologies become available, offering more range at lower cost, it will be relatively easy to upgrade the entire vehicle fleet.

It sounds like Agassi has a good shot at making the idea work in Israel, where the driving distances are fairly modest. The Israeli government plans to back the scheme by raising sales taxes on gasoline-powered vehicles to a preposterous 60% and buying back old gasoline-powered clunkers. Agassi believes that Israel is only a starting point, however. His home base is actually in Silicon Valley, and if Israel can successfully go electric, he sees no inherent obstacle to converting the rest of the world to electric as well.

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[TUE 15 APR 08] THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A FREE LUNCH

* THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A FREE LUNCH: As reported in an article in WIRED magazine ("Why $0.00 Is The Future Of Business" by Chris Anderson, March 2008), in 1895 American inventor King Gillette had a bright idea: instead of using a razor and resharpening it every time it got dull, why not make the blade disposable? And so the disposable-blade safety razor was born. However, it wasn't an overnight success, and he struggled along until he came up with the right business model: give away the razor itself and make money on the blades.

This is such a common business tactic in modern times that it's hard to imagine an era when it wasn't obvious. Cell phone service providers give away cell phones and make money off the monthly charges; videogames are sold for cheap, with game sales hauling in the loot; printers are sold at bargain prices while the ink cartridges are spendy. However, the 21st-century digital revolution is taking this approach another step or two further: it's as if Gillette thought to give away both razors and blades, to make money on something else. Shaving cream maybe? That might sound ridiculous, but the "free economy" is undergoing a boom.

The main driving force behind "freeconomics" is the rapidly falling price curve for digital technologies. There was a time when an electronic device like a TV used basic elements vacuum tubes that cost a buck or so each; now a single transistor in an integrated circuit costs a millionth of a cent or even much less. Disk drive space is so cheap that it's hard to fill it up with ordinary text files and the like: a user needs to be into video downloads to strain it. High-bandwidth network connections are also dropping down the price curve at a fast clip. The low cost of digital resources means that Yahoo can now offer free unlimited disk space for users of Yahoo Mail, itself a free service -- and it works.

So how to make money off free offerings? There are a number of approaches:

The freeconomics model is not strictly limited to cyberspace. It only costs about ten pounds (about $20 USD at current exchange rates) to fly from London to Barcelona on Dublin-based Ryanair airlines. Ryanair can do it by cutting costs and charging for all extras, as well as leveraging off in-flight advertising. Ryanair would like to be able to even offer free flights, supported by gambling and kickbacks from other service providers, such as rental-car firms, linked to Ryanair. Cyberspace is, however, one of the main enablers for such schemes, since if the overhead for transferring a cut of a car rental to Ryanair wasn't absolutely minimal, the profitability would quickly disappear. Automated online transaction schemes mean it costs effectively nothing to spread the wealth around.

Of course, the low cost of living in cyberspace has led to a different sort of free economy in which people, large numbers of them, are engaged in "public domain" activities that aren't supposed to bring in a profit -- blogs, writings, MIDI tunes, photo archives, even an online encyclopedia like the Wikipedia. It is even possible to use the "Freecycle" website to tell people to come over and pick one's junk. There's nothing new about such transactions; what is new is that they have been greatly expanded in scope by ultra-cheap digital technology.

Is the free economy really revolutionary? That may be hard to argue persuasively, since people still want to make money and are not generally inclined to give away things they can get somebody to pay for. However, the free economy is now much more significant than it was in the past, and with the continued drop in price for digital technologies, it's going to be more important in the future. The public-domain component of the free economy is still in its infancy; while much of it is junk, it is gradually building up a body of work of steadily growing value. The free economy may never compete with ordinary commerce in scale, but it is getting bigger every year.

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[MON 14 APR 08] TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (5)

* TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (5): This series began with an unflattering look at the antiquated operations of the Indian embassy in London. There was nothing really unusual about the embassy's way of doing things by Indian standards, since Indian governance is traditionally and notoriously inefficient, even corrupt. The public school system is ineffective, the public health system is inadequate, and the land-records system is a joke.

However, that is India's old face, and it coexists with its 21st century face, that of "New Digital India". For example, consider the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which is enthusiastic about the potential of the internet, setting up a system to called "e-seva", allowing customers to pay online for their public services -- electricity, phone, water, taxes. That may not sound like much, but it use to be an absolute pain to pay bills, with even small firms having to hire a staffer whose only job was to stand in lines to handle the paperwork, as well as pass out the occasional bribe. Now those with online access and charge cards can go to "esevaonline.com" -- web pages rarely ask for bribes -- and those who don't have such things can go to an e-seva center.

Getting a passport or the like still remains troublesome, and there are critics who say that e-seva merely puts an improved front door on a broken system -- but those who use it say it's a big improvement. Right now, about 60% of payments for public services in Andhra Pradesh are funneled through e-seva. The state government is expanding the system from its current 119 e-seva centers to 4,600 centers, using existing post offices.

The state government did not implement e-seva itself: it was actually outsourced, with a private contractor doing all the work, and obtaining a small commission on transactions. Not surprisingly, e-seva provides other services, such as money transfer through Western Union, or purchase of railway and movie tickets. Current plans are to expand the scope of the system, for example to apply for driving licenses online -- and in particular to make the mobile phone, not the PC, the main platform for payments, a scheme which is already being exploited by technology-smart Indian banks.

Other Indian states are following Andhra Pradesh's lead, and the national government is getting involved. As far back as 2002, the national railway system was offering tickets online, allowing riders to bypass corrupt clerks who would hoard long-distance tickets and then sell them at a markup. Now the national government wants to have 100,000 "common service centers" -- like e-seva, but providing fewer services for the time being -- by the end of 2008. The national government also has made online tax returns mandatory for companies and has introduced a legally binding digital signature system, a trick that many Western countries haven't figured out yet.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also taken aim at the notoriously painful process of obtaining a passport -- which at present requires the applicant to present 11 documents, spend a day fussing with bureaucrats, and wait six months to get the passport. The government has made a deal with a private contractor to develop a new passport application scheme that will cut the waiting time to less than an hour and get the passport to the applicant in no more than three working days. In effect, what India is trying to do with e-government is not merely chase after Western governments, but take a giant step to bring India even or ahead.

* In sum, governments are generally on top of i-government, but they have more work to do to make e-government a reality, and given the tendency of governments to occasionally botch things the road to e-government is not likely to be entirely smooth -- suffering from projects that go nowhere and the occasional disastrous breach of security.

Some like to claim that e-government will transform the nature of government, but that seems overblown. Much of what passes for e-government is gimmickry. Who would really think that sending an email to "president@whitehouse.gov" would amount to much? Some politicians have blogs, but they generally don't say much and few bother to read them. The reality remains that real citizen involvement in government is mostly the domain of activists who can devote their time to it; the rest of us have only a casual interest in the matter.

That in itself is no reason to condemn the idea of e-government. Maybe in the end we'll have the same old system, but it is still nice to think that at least it will use friendlier tools to get the job done with less pain for all concerned. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 11 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (6)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (6): Folks who don't live near large rivers are not all that aware of how heavily such waterways are used for cargo transport. Transporting cargoes on rivers is very different business from hauling them over the seas, with the primary vehicle for river transport being the "barge" -- just a big, flat-bottomed box onto which cargo is loaded. Barges are sort of the waterborne equivalent of railroad cars, including open-topped "hopper" barges to haul coal or scrap metal or other cargoes that aren't bothered by the elements; "dry-cargo" barges with enclosed compartments, usually used to haul grain; and even "tanker" barges to haul petroleum or other liquids.

Mississippi river barge

In the USA, there are two standard barge sizes: the "Pittsburgh" barge, with dimensions of 53.4 x 7.9 meters (175 x 26 feet), and the "jumbo" barge, with dimensions of 59.4 x 10.7 meters (195 x 35) feet. Usually barges are lashed together in a "tow" or "hitch" using steel cables, hitching being performed front-to-back and left-to-right, with up to dozens of barges in the assembly.

The barges are pushed by a specialized vessel called a "towboat". It's often called a "tugboat", since like a tugboat it's a small vessel with a lot of horsepower, but the two are distinct. Unlike a tugboat, the towboat has a flat front to allow it to mate up to a barge, with two triangular structures called "knees" to make the connection; there may also be stairways to allow the crew to walk up from the towboat onto the barge in front. The cabin of a towboat is three or four stories high, to allow the skipper to see over the expanse of barges. While rivers don't present the same hazards from rough seas as the open ocean, a towboat skipper has to be aware of currents and must watch out for the piers of bridges and other obstructions.

There was a time in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, for a generation or two before the introduction of the railroad, when the barge was the most important means of inland freight transport. Widespread networks of canals were built. America's first major engineering project, the Erie Canal, was proposed in 1809 and completed 1825, linking New York City to Lake Erie through a series of canals and the Hudson River. The barges were small, pulled by mules walking along shore paths. The Erie Canal only remained in operation for a few decades before the railroads made it obsolete. With the invention of the train, there was no need to carve canals, since it was cheaper to lay rails and faster to haul freight by train. However, freight hauling by barge was still cost-effective where there were major waterways, and so today it is nothing unusual to see barge traffic on major American rivers like the Mississippi and the Columbia.

The same is true for Europe, where the Rhine and the Danube provide convenient highways for freight. The two rivers flow close to each other and the heavy traffic between them has long made a canal attractive; the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was finally completed in 1992, permitting a barge to travel all the way from Amsterdam to the Black Sea.

Of course, the reason the two rivers weren't naturally connected was because there were hills in the way, which leads to the question of how to lay a canal through the hills. Digging out the terrain or driving through a tunnel isn't practical except on a small scale, but it is possible to lift a vessel upward using a "lock" system. A lock is a basin with watertight gates at both ends. Only one gate is opened at a time, with the vessel steaming in at the level of the watercourse downstream; the gate is closed behind it, with water flooded in through "sluices" to raise the level to that of the watercourse upstream. The upstream gate is opened and the vessel steams out. A vessel going downstream steams in from the opposite direction, the upstream gates close, the water is allowed to drain out through another set of sluices to the downstream level, and the downstream gate is opened to allow the vessel to continue on its way. The higher the elevation to cross, the more locks have to be implemented, in effect building a "water staircase" to allow ships to pass over heights.

Canals are not unusual on inland waterways; they are more unusual for oceanic traffic, though the two most famous canals in the world -- the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal -- link oceans together. The Suez Canal is a sea-level canal, and it was relatively easy to build since it didn't require locks. The Panama Canal has a set of locks and was a very tough job, particularly since the prevalence of yellow fever in Panama led to large numbers of fatalities among the workforce. The Panama Canal was gradually being reduced to obsolescence because it wasn't wide enough to handle the biggest tankers and container ships, but it is now being expanded to provide service in the 21st century. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 APR 08] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: On 11 March 2008, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) space shuttle Endeavour was launched into orbit on a mission to the International Space Station. The flight was to deliver part of the Japanese component of the ISS and in particular a robot manipulator built by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), known as the "Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator (SPDM)" or just "Dextre".

DEXTRE / SPDM

Dextre was attached to the end of the 16.8 meter (55 foot), seven-jointed "Canadarm 2", which is attached in turn to a "Mobile Base System" that can shuttle up and down the station's main truss on rails; the complete system is referred to as the "Mobile Servicing Assembly". Dextre features two 3 meter (10 foot) long seven-jointed robot arms. The "head" of Dextre clamps on to the assembly being worked on, with one of the arms used to clamp Dextre to the ISS for stability while the other does the actual work, for example removing and replacing power system modules. The entire Dextre assembly rotates at its "waist".

The two arms are terminated by an "Orbital Replacement Unit / Tool Changeout Mechanism (OTCM)", with visegrip jaws; a retractable socket drive; a grayscale TV camera; lights; and a hookup connector to provide power to a payload and allow video or other data transfer. The OTCM provides force and torque feedback. It can only work with a limited range of ISS assemblies -- they must have one of four types of "grasp interfaces" -- but CSA engineers at Laval University in Quebec are working on much more sophisticated three-fingered tool designated the "Self-Adaptive Robotic Auxiliary Hand (SARAH)" that is closer in capability to a human hand. Work is also being performed at Laval on a specialized tool to remove and replace the station's velcro-attached thermal blankets.

Dextre has twin secondary fixed arms that carry lights, cameras, and a tool holder. Dextre can handle loads of up to 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) and can be positioned with an accuracy of 2 millimeters. While Dextre can be controlled from a console in the ISS Destiny module, it will be more generally operated by mission control from the ground, following carefully planned servicing scripts. It will only be able to perform relatively routine servicing tasks, but it will definitely reduce the need for laborious, difficult, and potentially hazardous spacewalks.

* A short article in WIRED magazine described the "StarChase Pursuit Management System", which consists of a compressed-air gun mounted in the front grille of a cop car that fires an electronics module that sticks to the back of a vehicle the police are chasing. The module then radios the GPS coordinates of the vehicle, allowing the police to track the vehicle without getting into a dangerous high-speed chase.

* Some time back THE ECONOMIST ran a survey on wireless interconnectivity, which generally "arrested the usual suspects" -- wireless sensor networks, implantable RFID, and so on. However, it did have one gimmick that was unfamiliar: a "wireless mousetrap", produced by Rentokil, a building-services firm in the UK.

The mousetrap radios an alert when it's triggered. Exactly why someone would need a wireless mousetrap might seem hard to understand at first, but any large building with a rodent problem may have hundreds of mousetraps, and having to patrol them all the time to re-arm them -- as well as put maimed mice out of their misery and remove the corpses before they start to smell -- is labor-intensive. The Rentokil mousetraps dump their data over the internet to a central service, providing alerts to staff to tell them to come reset the trap. The system provides automatic statistics of where the traps are most often triggered, highlighting the worst problem areas. London's new Wembley Stadium is among the buildings now equipped with Rentokil traps.

* CNET New Online reports that a new CompactFlash card technology is in the wings, called "CFast". As its name implies, it offers substantially faster data-transfer rates -- 375 megabytes per second, versus 45 megabytes per second for current CompactFlash. This will allow digital cameras to take and store images at a much higher rate.

To keep up with the fast data transfers, a CFast card uses a high-speed Serial ATA interface, just as do modern disk drives. However, that means CFast cards won't be compatible with current CompactFlash cards, and the CFast cards will be keyed so they won't fit into standard CompactFlash slots. Sigh, every time we get used to a technology, they go obsolete it on us: "I'll have to buy the Beatles White Album again!" CFast cards are expected to be on the market in about two years or so.

* On other gimmick news, I was watching a kid at the supermarket zoom around corners of the aisles on athletic shoes with wheels in the heels. I've been seeing the wheelie shoes around for about a year or so, but it looks like one of those amusing fads that will disappear in the not too distant future, and so it's worthwhile to make a note of it here for the time when the question is posed: "Do you remember ... ?" Sort of like a Rubik's Cube. I still have one in a box. I never did figure out the trick behind it.

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[WED 09 APR 08] SHOT DOWN

* SHOT DOWN: The recent award of a contract to a partnership of the European EADS and US Northrop Grumman aircraft companies for the US Air Force's new KC-45 (KC-X) inflight refueling tanker may seem like a matter of no general interest, but as it turns out, it is only the latest episode in a sequence of events presenting governance as a black comedy.

The Air Force standardized on the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a military relative of the 707 jetliner, as the service's tanker back in the 1960s. Although the KC-135 proved an excellent aircraft and has been updated continuously in service, for example with modern CFM56 turbofan engines, by the end of the century the need for a replacement was obvious. In 2003, the USAF announced a deal for the lease of 100 "KC-767" tankers from Boeing, which were to be based on the Boeing 767 wide-body airliner. The lease was to run ten years and the Air Force would then buy the aircraft.

However, at that time the news headlines were screaming about Enron and other corporate scandals, and the lease deal attracted unwanted attention from Arizona Senator John McCain and others in Congress. The critics argued that the lease deal was sheer featherbedding, far more expensive than an outright buy, and the Air Force was not able to convince them otherwise. Efforts were made to adjust the deal -- but then the program imploded when Darleen Druyun, a senior Pentagon procurement official involved with the tanker program, got a cushy job with Boeing.

This went well beyond an "appearance of impropriety" -- on investigation, she had actually negotiated with Boeing officials to get the job while she was working for the Defense Department on the tanker deal. She also passed on details to Boeing of a proposal by EADS for a competing Airbus-based tanker. Druyun, who apparently had a reputation for having her own ideas about the rules, ended up with a stint in Federal prison, while Boeing's chief financial officer, Michael Sears, also got a prison sentence. Boeing was fined $625 million USD and the company's chief executive officer, Phil Condit, had to resign. His replacement as CEO, Harry Stonecipher, didn't last long himself, being forced to resign after being caught in a sexual affair with a Boeing executive. Stonecipher was foolishly indiscreet over email .... but that's another story.

* In any case, the Air Force was getting desperate to obtain a new tanker and still wanted to push through the KC-767, claiming that all contractual irregularities had been addressed, but Congress wasn't buying. The Air Force had to set up a formal competition. The Boeing submission was once again based on the 767, though there was some thought of a tanker based on the "stretched" 777 derivative of the 767. While the company had built KC-767s for both Italy and Japan, the proposal for the Air Force was based on a new configuration. The EADS / Northrop Grumman entry was based on the Airbus A330 and very similar to the "Multi-Role Tanker-Transport (MRTT)" that EADS had sold to Australia. The rivalry over the tanker deal was more than mere competition for business: Boeing and Airbus have hated each others' guts from day one, as demonstrated by a long history of sniping and trading insults. The nasty dialogue has toned down in recent years, but only because customers made it clear they were sick of listening to it, not because the rivals have mellowed in their attitude toward each other.

Not surprisingly, the A330-MRTT proposal would be available earlier, and since the Air Force was in a hurry to make up for lost time that meant a lot. The Airbus also provided better range and auxiliary cargo carriage. In fact, the A330-MRTT proved superior to the KC-767 in all five selection criteria categories established by the Air Force.

The KC-45 is to be assembled by Northrop Grumman in the US at a plant in Mobile, Alabama; the same plant will roll out A330-200F air freighters for the international commercial market. The first KC-45s are scheduled for delivery in 2011, with introduction to operational service in 2013. This is a very aggressive schedule, but EADS / Northrop Grumman officials think it will be easy to meet. The total buy is expected to reach 179 aircraft, replacing 530 KC-135s, with the new machines delivered at a rate of 12 to 18 a year. As if to rub in Boeing's humiliation, a month later the British government selected a similar A330-based tanker for the Royal Air Force's "Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA)" requirement.

KC-45 tanker

Traditionally, the US military has preferred to "buy American", in large part because of Congressional pressure, but that's been changing over the past few decades, mostly due to the rise of international fair trade arrangements. The acceptance of an Airbus solution for a major US defense requirement is a big message to other nations that the playing field is much more level than it used to be.

Loss of the deal was a serious blow to Boeing, and company officials have talked about challenging the decision. In fact, Air Force officials were not happy to learn that before the award had been made, both contractor teams were preparing legal challenges. The Pentagon officials involved had already been jerked through a knothole on the tanker effort and did not like the idea of another session of hassles, and proposals were made to change challenge rules to make a failed challenge very expensive to the plaintiff. The loss of the tanker deal means that Boeing 767 production, without new commercial orders, will be shut down in four years. The USAF is considering a contract to replace the service's big KC-10 (DC-10) Extender tankers under the "KC-Y" program, but that won't be until 2020. Unless Boeing can successfully challenge the award, the company is effectively out of the tanker business. [ED: As discussed later, Boeing successfully challenged the award, and won the re-match.]

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[TUE 08 APR 08] THE END OF CHEAP FOOD?

* THE END OF CHEAP FOOD? The 21st century brought with it a partly unexpected rise in energy prices due to soaring global demand; as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Cheap No More", 8 December 2007), a similar squeeze is now being placed on food supplies.

In September 2007, the world price of wheat reached an absolute high of $400 USD a tonne, twice as much as it had been in May 2007. That isn't as high in real terms as the price of wheat in 1974, but it's still twice as high as the average of the last two decades. The price of corn also hit highs in 2007. There's a ripple effect to high prices of an agricultural commodity, since farmers sensibly start switching land to the crop that gives them the best return. That helps hold down the price, of course -- the price of wheat and corn dropped quickly after reaching highs, though not back to the preexisting level -- but it also crimps the supply of other crops, meaning their price shoots up, too.

Usually high food prices are due to scarcity caused by crop failures. There have indeed been bad harvests in various places, such as drought-stricken Australia, but overall global grain harvests in recent years have never been bigger. Human population growth has been slowing and so that doesn't account for the high prices, either.

One answer is emerging economies. When workers make more money, they buy more meat, meaning more meat production and more grain used to fatten livestock. Over the last two decades, per-capita meat consumption in China has more than doubled. Since this has been a long-term, gradual change, in itself increased meat production can't explain the abrupt rise in prices over the last year. What has caused the short-term spike is biofuel production. Farmers are engaged in a global "gold rush" to cash in on biofuels, with American farmers going "whole hog" on corn production to stock ethanol distilleries. That means a shortfall in the food supply; the World Bank estimates that the grain required to fill up an SUV once could feed a person for a year.

The economics of biofuels, particularly ethanol, are dodgy, heavily dependent on government subsidies and trade protection, so in principle this issue could be addressed by tweaking biofuel policies to conform more closely to reality. The problem is that biofuels are seen as "green", are politically sexy, and have a politically powerful constituency; politicians are not likely to tinker with the system, and food prices are going to stay high. To be sure, more cropland can be brought under cultivation -- the old and notorious farm subsidy of paying farmers not to grow crops either is or soon will be a thing of the past -- but that will take time and investment, and it will also mean more clearing of forests and other wild lands. That means that the trend of the past decades toward cheaper food is not likely to be seen again any time soon. More expensive food will be troublesome in rich countries; it will be disastrous in poor ones. Many countries are implementing direct or indirect food price controls to soften the impact.

Of course, what helps consumers can hurt producers and the reverse. Higher food prices mean more prosperous farmers. That's a good thing in the poverty-stricken American Midwest, and it's an even better thing for poorer countries that are net agricultural producers, since it gives them products to sell at a good profit on the world markets. Simple blanket price controls aren't a good solution since they help choke off production by making it unprofitable: Russia went that way, and the result was empty shelves in the stores. It is usually wiser to provide income assistance to the poor, but that takes a bit of political sophistication. High food prices are creating a challenge to governments. So far, the response has not been one that inspires much confidence.

* ED: A note in BUSINESS WEEK pointed out that the crunch on food has led to a crunch on sulfuric acid, the most important industrial chemical outside of petrochemicals. How so? The supply of acid was generous until recently, but the increased demand for farm fertilizers, the production of which uses sulfuric acid, turned a glut into a tight supply. Sulfuric acid prices have tripled over the last year. The price inflation promises to make car batteries and paper prices higher as well, at least until manufacturers can build more facility to meet the higher demand.

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[MON 07 APR 08] TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (4)

* TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (4): One of the really big issues in e-government, as mentioned repeatedly in this series, is security. The internet, as Kim Cameron -- the "Identity Architect" at Microsoft -- put it, "was built without a way to know who you are and what you are connecting to." In the private sector, the lack of security means a running threat of being ripped off, and for e-government the potential for problems is even worse. We try to get by with passwords or smart cards to ensure some security, but such data can be stolen or faked.

Nobody feels very secure on the internet, and with good reason. Says Cameron: "There is no consistent and comprehensible framework allowing [online users] to evaluate the authenticity of the sites they visit, and they don't have a reliable way of knowing when they are disclosing information to illegitimate parties. At the same time they lack a framework for controlling or even remembering the many different aspects of their digital existence." The result is that financial institutions and their customers are often cheated by online crooks, and to compound matters, the law governing online fraud is both weak and weakly enforced. Crooks use "spyware" distributed by viruses to raid personal computers for information, and send out email "phishing" letters that impersonate banks, asking users for their login information. The crooks are after components of the online "identities" of users to get access to bank accounts and make online purchases on somebody else's dime.

The thieves would be delighted to penetrate huge government databases, which include all kinds of detailed personal information, even medical data. The UK is working on a massive centralized database for medical records, with access available to roughly a million NHS staffers. In the wings are a national identity-card scheme, a national register of children, and a pensioner's bus-pass scheme with data on 17 million Britons. Few have been impressed by government assurances that the databases are secure. Big software projects are notorious for security holes, and even when they are well-designed, they are vulnerable to the "inside job" -- a problem that grows proportionally with the number of people who can get "inside". According to Ross Anderson, a professor of computer security at Cambridge University in the UK, large online systems are almost inherently insecure: crack an online system at a small business, the trouble is going to be local, crack an online system at a national database, the problem can affect everyone.

Anderson argues: "You can have security, or functionality, or scale -- you can even have any two of these. But you can't have all three, and the government will eventually be forced to admit this. In the meantime, billions of pounds are being wasted on gigantic systems projects that usually don't work, and that place citizens' privacy and safety at risk when they do." Other critics have suggested that personal information has to be handled at a security level along the lines of that assigned to fissionable materials or high-level radioactive waste.

What makes matters even more troublesome is that people are getting used to a high level of intrusiveness. If, for example, users of public transport in London were told their movements were going to be monitored, there would be a fuss. However, if the same users are told they can get lower fares with the all-purpose "Oyster" card, they don't have a problem with it, even though it provides detailed tracking of their use of the system. Few customers object to the fact that supermarkets and online shops like Amazon.com keep detailed track of purchases -- and in fact, given that this tracking allows the vendors to offer deals specifically tailored to individual customers, have an incentive to go along.

Search engines similarly keep track of users' online searches. As Cameron put it: "Hundreds of millions of people have been trained to accept anything any site wants to throw at them as being the 'normal way' to conduct business online." Cameron thinks matters need to be rethought, beginning with the principle that users may be identified only with their explicit consent. That might seem to be an obvious idea, but in practice it's not always honored -- for example, the UK's patient database for the NHS will simply assume consent.

The second principle is to ensure that those using the information only get the data they need to perform the task at hand, a concept Cameron calls "information minimalism". For example, suppose a government agency wants to check if someone falls into a particular age group: all the agency needs to know is YES or NO, not a specific birthday.

A third principle is for systems to be able to check to see who is really requesting the information. How easy it is to access data should depend on who the target is. Cameron suggests that public bodies should be easily accessed, while private individuals should have maximum rights of privacy, only identifying themselves temporarily and by choice. Many modern technologies do not lend themselves to security: short-range Bluetooth wireless interfaces announce their presence to anyone nearby, and radio frequency ID (RFID) chips are usually unencrypted, allowing them to be read by anyone who can buy an easily-available reader.

The worst problem is, however, the human factor. There is the famous story of the user who put her passwords on her display using post-it notes. No matter how tight the actual security technology, it can be cracked if users can be conned into helping others access the system, or simply carelessly leave the door open, allowing anyone to get in. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 04 APR 08] INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (5)

* INFRASTRUCTURE -- SHIPPING (5): It has always been preferable for ships to pick up and unload cargoes in semi-enclosed harbors, where they are more protected from harsh weather and rough seas. Cities tend to spring up on the shores of convenient natural harbors, with considerable efforts made to improve such harbors.

Given how big modern ships can get, there's even more need for improvements now. Big ships take up more space and draft, and so harbors have to be enlarged, by extending jetties of land into the sea or dredging out the harbor and the channel into it. Floating pile drivers pound piles made of wood, heavily soaked with creosote to resist rot, into the harbor floor to support jetties and piers; sometimes concrete or metal piles are used instead. Dredges are not usually floating shovels or draglines, instead using high-powered pumps to draw bottom muck through a big pipeline. The spoils are troublesome: they used to be employed as landfill, but that's more difficult now since they are often categorized as hazardous waste.

A typical jetty looks like nothing more than an extended finger of rock sticking out into the sea, but it's a bit more sophisticated than it looks. It may have a compacted core of crushed stone and gravel, or even of concrete -- the stone on the surface is mainly intended to soak up wave energy that would otherwise erode the core. Some jetties are covered with interlocking concrete blocks to provide more effective armor. In some cases, a seawall made of concrete or interlocking steel piles provides the same service as a jetty.

* A harbor also features various sorts of "port furniture", for examples "fenders" to protect vessels from bashing against docks. The simplest fenders are old tires roped to the docks, but they don't work very well against big container ships and the like. Heavy-duty fenders are made of heavy timbers, big springs, and rubber bearings. They appear very rigid, but they give well enough when squeezed by a big tanker.

There are usually posts, called "dolphins", in the harbor where vessels can tie up. Dolphins are generally made of wood pilings, usually 7 or 9 -- to provide a nice rounded structure -- though big ones may be made of steel or concrete. The fixtures on docks used to tie up vessels are also sometimes called dolphins, but they are more generally referred to as "bollards". Bollards come in a variety of shapes; they're built strong, but not too strong, since it is preferable for the bollard to give way instead of the dock when a vessel is pushed around by harsh weather.

* Harbors also usually feature tugboats, effectively seagoing tractors with bumpers. They aren't generally fast, but they can produce a lot of power to help guide a big vessel to dock. There are also ocean-going tugs that tow vessels disabled out at sea. It remains somewhat puzzling as to how tugboats ever got so popular as children's toys and cartoon characters.

tugboat

Some harbors also have "dry docks" for ship maintenance. A dry dock amounts to a concrete channel with a door at one end. A ship steams in, the door closes, the water is pumped out, and the vessel settles onto a cradle at the bottom. However, the dry dock is somewhat obsolete, being gradually replaced by the "synchrolift" -- a cradle lifted by a set of carefully synchronized winches that actually hauls a vessel out of the water. The advantage compared to a dry dock is that a dry dock is completely committed to a single vessel until the vessel is ready to float again, while a synchrolift can haul multiple vessels out of the water for service. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 03 APR 08] RACE & THE GENOME

* RACE & THE GENOME: As reported in an article in WIRED magazine ( "The Inconvenient Science Of Racial DNA Profiling" by Melba Newsome, October 2007), on 16 July 2002 a survey crew from the Louisiana Department of Transportation found the naked, rotting body of a woman along the banks of the Mississippi near Baton Rouge. The woman was identified as a Pam Kinamore; DNA tests suggested strongly that she had been murdered by a serial killer who had been responsible for the deaths of two other women. The women were all white and middle-class. An FBI profile and an eyewitness set local, state, and Federal law enforcement on a hunt for a young white man who drove a white pickup truck.

The investigation went nowhere, and in December a fourth woman was murdered, with the law at a loss to track down the culprit. In March 2003, the authorities finally turned to Tony Frudakis, a molecular biologist who runs a company named DNAPrint Genomics in Sarasota, Florida, for help. Frudakis claimed he could confirm the ethnic background of the killer from the DNA samples that had been obtained as evidence. Frudakis sounded like a crank to the officers of the investigation task force, but they performed a blind test on him, handing him samples of 20 known individuals to test. He nailed the ethnic derivation of all of them.

In mid-March, Frudakis called the Baton Rouge Police Department and told them: "Your guy has substantial African ancestry. He could be Afro-Caribbean or African American but there is no chance that this is a Caucasian. No chance at all." There was a dead silence, followed by a flurry of questions: was he absolutely sure of his results? He said he was, and in fact said the killer was about 85% Sub-Saharan African and 15% Native American. The police were still somewhat suspicious of Frudakis' claims, but a fifth woman had been murdered in the meantime, so they changed the manhunt to find a suspect matching Frudakis' genetic profile. Two months later, the killer was in custody.

* As anyone who watches CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION knows, DNA analysis is in common use in law enforcement, and in fact US law enforcement has access to a database with 5 million DNA profiles -- the "Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)". CODIS, as its name states, is simply a database: it is possible to search through it with a DNA sample to see if a match is found with the DNA of individuals logged in the database, but of course it can't find people who aren't in the database. It says nothing about race, and deliberately so, since there were fears that it could bias investigations if it did. When the national DNA Advisory Board selected the gene markers, or DNA sequences which have a known location on a chromosome, for CODIS, they deliberately chose not to include markers associated with ancestral geographic origins to avoid any political fallout.

DNAWitness, the test Frudakis applied in the Baton Rouge case, uses a set of 176 genetic markers selected precisely because they disclose the most information about ethnic derivation. Some markers are found primarily in people of African heritage, while others are found mainly in people of Indo-European, Native American or South Asian heritage. No one sequence can reveal ancestral origin, but by looking collectively at hundreds and analyzing the frequency of the various markers, Frudakis claimed he could predict genetic ancestry with 99% accuracy.

From a genetic standpoint, the evolutionary history of modern humans is straightforward. Humanity arose as a fairly small population in Africa, and then radiated out to the other continents beginning about 200,000 years ago. That is a fairly recent, given the long generation times of humans, and the implication is that the human genome is highly -- but importantly not completely -- uniform. As Frudakis put it: "There is tremendous genetic diversity among other species of animals, but not among humans because our common history is so recent. We're 99.9% identical at the level of our DNA. It's the 0.1% that makes us different and about 1% of that 0.1% is different as a function of our differing history." DNAPrint Genomics had already helped Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones and Chris Tucker trace their ancestry back to Africa for a four-part PBS series titled AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES. No controversy there.

Armed with the clue provided by Frudakis, the task force sorted through the accumulated evidence to see what might have been missed. Three days before Pam Kinamore had disappeared, a black man had assaulted her in her home, but the assailant had been driven off when her son Alexander Kinamore came in the house. Alexander was badly injured by the intruder, but was able to describe him in detail to the police. However, the police were distracted by the eyewitness reports of a white man in a white pickup and never bothered to examine the DNA samples left by the assailant.

The police had also ignored Collette Dwyer, who thought she knew who the killer was: Derrick Todd Lee, a 34 year-old black man with a long criminal record for domestic violence, assault, stalking and peeping. He had stalked Dwyer for two years and forced his way into her apartment one day, to be driven out by Dwyer's two children and then arrested. He was sent to prison for two years; Dwyer knew when he was let out and noticed that the murders began after that. She repeatedly called the police and warned them. They talked to Lee but, still fixated on the eyewitness report, didn't take his DNA for testing. After Frudakis' bombshell, the police got a subpoena, took a cheek swab from Lee to get his DNA, and found a solid match. Lee fled Baton Rouge before his arrest warrant was issued, but was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, and brought back for trial.

* Frudakis obtained a doctorate in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1995, to then spend the next few years working as a researcher for Corixa Corporation in Seattle. He finally left to start his own company, focused on developing genomic-based or "targeted" drugs. The company ran out of money before it could get a drug on the market, however, and so Frudakis shifted to forensics as a way to make ends meet. The same markers that could be used for targeted drug design could also used to determine physical characteristics for law-enforcement investigations.

By the time Frudakis took on the Baton Rouge case, the DNAWitness test was well-established, having been performed on a large number of test subjects, with a thousand blind trials then performed with the cooperation of various police departments. Since 2003, DNAWitness has been used in over 150 criminal cases in the US and in the UK. It didn't prove useful in most of the cases -- if eyewitnesses or security cameras had already identified a perpetrator as being of a particular race, all DNAWitness could do was agree -- but it some cases it proved extremely important.

Kansas City, Missouri, police had spent four years trying to identify the body of a 3-year-old black girl; Frudakis determined that the child had one white grandparent, a clue that ultimately led to the child's mother, a mixed-race Oklahoma woman. When two women were murdered in Napa, California, Frudakis employed a more sophisticated version of DNAWitness that uses 1,349 genetic markers to peg the killer as 97 percent Northern European -- and the police were able to zero in on a suspect who was blonde and blue-eyed.

* DNAWitness clearly works, but it hasn't taken the world by storm. One issue is that it costs thousands of dollars, and as noted it's not necessarily all that useful if the general ethnic background of the perpetrator has already been solidly identified. It is also not widely known, and there are some forensics researchers who think it is scientific quackery. Even those who admit DNAWitness works are nervous because it is a means of racial classification, a process that in general has a definitely bad history in the law.

Modern civil rights activism has led to a downplaying of race. The buzzphrase is: "There is only one race -- the human race." That attitude is appropriate in terms of the goal of establishing an egalitarian "color blind" society, but in biological terms, it is nonsense. There are different varieties of apples, there are different breeds of cats, there are different breeds of horses, and there's not the slightest argument over it. Organisms typically have varieties, breeds, races, and the fact that the boundaries between them are indistinct and the connections between them confusing doesn't change that fact. There is only one human species, but there are clearly racial variations among that species. No one could look at a group picture of Ban-Ki Moon, Kofi Annan, and Nicholas Sarkozy and not instantly recognize who was asian, black, or white even if the individuals weren't familiar -- and no honest person would refuse to admit it, or have a sensible reason to do so.

The fact that Frudakis came up with a genetic test that could distinguish race made some scholars uncomfortable, expressing worries that DNAWitness represents a "slippery slope". Troy Duster, a New York University professor who has written about eugenics: "Once we start talking about predicting racial background from genetics, it's not much of a leap to talking about how people perform based on their DNA -- why they committed that rape or stole that car or scored higher on that IQ test. In this society where race is such a powerful idea, once you head down this path toward predicting race, will the next step be predicting racial behavior?"

Some in law enforcement are also nervous. Tony Clayton, a prosecutor who worked on the Baton Rouge case, is black, and initially thought Frudakis was some lunatic-fringe white racist. Now Clayton flatly admits that "had it not been for Frudakis, we would still be looking for the white guy in the white pick-up truck." But he adds: "We've been taught that we're all the same, that we bleed the same blood. If you subscribe to the [Frudakis] theory, you're saying we are inherently unequal. If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would."

"Slippery slope" arguments are notably slippery in themselves. Frudakis finds the claim that he is establishing that people are "inherently unequal" silly and exasperating, pointing out that DNAWitness merely determines ethnic derivation, and that's it. It neither makes nor even can make any value judgements, and he sees the suggestion that it does as a leap of logic, not a slippery slope. In practice, it's only used to narrow suspect lists and isn't used as evidence in court -- that's provided by a full DNA test, which renders the DNAWitness analysis irrelevant. A security camera can also determine race, but few have been calling security cameras an inherently racist technology. Indeed, since the patterns of variation of genetic markers track the evolutionary branching of the human species, DNAWitness affirms the basic unity of humankind: "Our technology is based on the notion that we all share a common ancestry to Africa from a couple hundred thousand years ago, that we are all part of the same family tree."

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[WED 02 APR 08] SMOKE SMOKE SMOKE THAT CIGARETTE

* SMOKE SMOKE SMOKE THAT CIGARETTE: With the rising tide of laws and restrictions placed on tobacco smoking in Western countries, it's easy to feel a bit sorry for smokers as they are increasingly treated like pariahs. This sympathy is tempered by the nastiness of the habit and watching people being eaten up by it. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("How To Save A Billion Lives", 9 February 2008), about a third to half of the people who take up smoking will be killed by it, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a billion people will be killed by smoking in the 21st century.

unhealthy habit

It might seem that smoking is a gradually fading habit. Since California led the way in placing curbs on smoking in 1998, over half of America's states have followed to a greater or lesser degree, and the anti-smoking crusade is catching on elsewhere. In 2004, Ireland comprehensively banned smoking in workplaces, and at the beginning of 2008, French cafes became smoke-free zones. However, smoking remains popular in India, China, and other developing countries, with the numbers of smokers in such places continuing to grow.

The war against smoking has become a world health issue. Over 150 nations have already ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires its member states to take specific actions to control smoking. The group is now working on measures to restrain tobacco smuggling. The WHO is taking the lead in pushing for further efforts.

In February Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, and Michael Bloomberg, New York City's zealously anti-smoking mayor, unveiled a survey titled MPOWER describing global tobacco use. MPOWER suggests that, while efforts to stub out smoking get a lot of attention, they are superficial at the present time. Serious anti-smoking efforts have only been implemented in about nine countries, covering a mere 5% of the world's population. WHO officials have used MPOWER to back up the organization's drive against smoking, which advocates six measures:

All this has a nannying sound to it, but the way WHO officials and other anti-smoking partisans see it, they're outmatched. Big Tobacco, on the retreat in the USA and other nations where smoking has become unfashionable, is refocusing its efforts on developing countries, with massive effect. Thanks to aggressive marketing, the number of smokers in Russia has doubled since 1991, and China is now home to a quarter of the world's smokers. While the anti-smoking crusaders may come across as overbearing and heavy-handed, they reply that any epidemic of contagious disease that caused as much misery as tobacco would be labeled a world crisis -- and that given the economic power of Big Tobacco, anything less than determined opposition is futile.

   Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!
   Puff, puff, puff and if you smoke yourself to death
   Tell Saint Peter at the Golden Gate
   That you hate to make him wait
   But you just gotta have another cigarette!

-- Merle Travis & Tex Williams, 1947.

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[TUE 01 APR 08] TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (3)

* TECHNOLOGY & GOVERNMENT (3): For an interesting vision of where e-government might be going, consider the municipal government of the District of Columbia, the only city in the United States that isn't part of a state. DC's municipal government was once regarded as somewhere between a joke and a disaster -- reaching its lowest point when Mayor Marion Berry was busted for cocaine use -- but under the current Mayor Adrian Fenty, it is on the leading edge of online government. The portal into the municipal online system, "dc.gov", not only provides forms to citizens, it generally allows them to submit them online. Citizens can conveniently renew a driver's license, pay a parking fine, report broken traffic lights, get permits, and pay local taxes.

Vivek Kundra, the district's chief technologist -- born in India, raised in Africa -- said that when the new administration came in, he had his work cut out for him. Earlier administrations had bought hundreds of personal computers for schools, which were lost in inventory and never actually used. There were 4.6 million paper records for DC employees that were in a state of absolute chaos. Now all the activities of the municipal government are displayed on spreadsheets. If an entry is pending action, it is highlighted yellow; if it is completed, it goes green; if it passes deadline, it goes red, and an alert is automatically sent to the employee's supervisor.

Vivek Kundra

For example, a head teacher in a school reports problems with her email, resulting in a yellow-highlighted entry. A technician is assigned, who repairs a bad cable. The head teacher reports all is OK, and the entry goes green. Most of the day-to-day software used in the system is effectively free, since it's based on the word processor, spreadsheet, and email utility provided to anyone who signs up with Google. There is a bit of additional overhead to obtain extra storage space and security, but that only runs to about $50 USD a head per year -- which is the least the DC government would have had to pay per month if they'd subcontracted the software out.

Subcontracting everything out is the usual bureaucratic solution, but as Kundra points out, the software the DC system uses is likely better validated than the norm, since so many people use it. The district doesn't even have to provide its own servers to store the district records and data, all now neatly scanned and indexed: the information resides on the Google server network AKA the "cloud". The district is now equipping the police with iPhones, replacing expensive and temperamental police radios. The police control room links the cellphones to Google map and satellite imagery to keep track of patrol cars. The district is even scrapping its phone network, giving employees a budget and telling them to go buy cellphones. They can buy whatever kind of cellphone they like that can do the job.

Kundra is not just into gadgetry; he wants to reshape the way things are done. Early on, he found that it took about a month to shuffle papers around and bring a new employee on board even after the employee was given the job. Now the system, using spreadsheets with colored highlighting, gets the employee on the job in 48 hours. The next task is to integrate procurement into the system: a bid is out for a warehouse to store police evidence, with a wiki page set up to provide two-way communications with bidders and concerned citizens. The following step, sorting out the district's notorious public schools, is going to be tough, but he feels that it promises to provide much better data on truancy rates, crime, teacher absenteeism, and so on. He admits that the data in itself cannot solve the problems, but it certainly will help.

* A number of other US cities have systems of similar sophistication. Such examples are encouraging, but everyone admits that scaling up the technology to the national level is not a straightforward task. Municipal governments don't have the same security issues as national governments, and the issues they generally deal with are relatively small scale: fixing streets, running libraries, issuing permits, and the like. Municipal governments are of course a lot smaller than national governments, and that means the technological fix is easier. There is a rough rule in technology that doubling the scope of a project does not double the complexity of the job: it squares it.

For example, consider the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) in DC, where the Federal government's e-government tsarina, Karen Evans, gets by with only a fraction of the technological capability available to high district officials, with the process still heavily reliant on paper. Evans understands that the system is primitive. She says that the first phase, i-government, has gone pretty well, but the next phase, involving doing more than just providing forms and information, is troublesome. It's not just the scale of the effort, since ugly questions about rights and privacy have to be answered before things can be made to work.

Governments all over the world are struggling with such issues. Of course, the process is easier in places where the government is reasonably efficient and conscientious in the first place. It also works better when there's a minimum of grandstanding to the public: programs that are announced with loud fanfare even before plans are in place tend to go badly off track, when they could have been said to have been on any track in the first place.

Another observation from world e-government efforts is that schemes need to be well-defined but flexible: highly centralized efforts tend to not get off the ground. The Gulf state of Dubai has been doing a very highly regarded job of implementing e-government, and has done so by maintaining a loose leash on the process. Some elements of the system, such as a secure electronic payment system and digital identity systems, have been established by the government, but the rest can be implemented by the responsible authorities as they see fit. The only constraint is that Dubai's "CEO", Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, rewards the successful and penalizes the laggards.

Dubai has advantages in implementing leading-edge e-government. The state is dependent on outside investment, and needs to provide a competitive environment to bring in money. Dubai's government administration is modern and not hidebound; the citizens regard the government as competent and honest, and are generally happy to go along with changes.

Singapore has also done well with e-government, providing citizens with a heavy-grade password scheme called "Singpass" to allow them to conduct most of their business with the state online or via mobile phone. The Singpass system also has the important factor that it dovetails neatly with the private sector, since Singpass is also used to validate commercial transactions. In the USA, a website named "moving.com" has won praise in similarly linking government and private organizations in helping citizens move, handling things from change of mailing address and utilities to helping line up boxes and transport.

* One of the tricks behind successful e-government is making sure it works well enough so that citizens will be happy to use it. Another trick is the difficult one of incorporating who cannot or will not go online. An official in the city of Birmingham in the UK says that the British government in Whitehall sees the nation as made up of "middle-class nuclear families", but in reality many households are "transient and chaotic".

There is the option of just leaving the "transient and chaotic" offline and shifting with them as best as possible. It might actually be cheaper and more effective, however, to make sure that everyone has some sort of minimal online access, for example a mobile phone, with the state subsidizing those who normally couldn't afford such a thing. It would be hard to argue with handing out phones if it actually lowers the costs of the overall system. Interactive digital TV is another option for e-government. So far, the tech has only been used for voting in game shows and the like, but there's no reason more couldn't be made of it. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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