* Entries include: waste and recycling infrastructure, the Yellowstone menace, Florida road trip again, math word problems a bad idea, success of French TGV trains, using online microcredit systems, in-store advertising, retreading tires for ore-hauler trucks, printed microcircuit fabrication technology, geothermal power from ordinary locations, new defensive network for Manhattan, quarreling over fat, and solar variation versus climate change.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2008: The big news this month was disasters: a cyclone hit Myanmar / Burma, and then a massive earthquake hit central China. Tens of thousands died in both cases. Videos from the BBC from central China showed shocking scenes of entire towns reduced to a jumble of rubble and tilted buildings, with rescue workers digging frantically to rescue survivors.
Although traditionally the Chinese government has tended to clam up in the face of disasters, in this case outside reportage was all but encouraged. Senior government officials took great pains to make sure earthquake relief was on the top of the nation's priority queue and to make sure the rest of the world knew it. The government has five million homeless people and huge numbers of orphans to take care of; the leaders of the Middle Kingdom have not been too proud to ask for international help, which was quickly forthcoming in a global wave of sympathy.
The attitude in Myanmar was entirely the opposite. The generals who run the country banned foreign reporters; made life difficult for aid workers; and foreign warships -- such as the USS ESSEX, a US Navy helicopter assault carrier loaded with emergency relief supplies -- were left sitting offshore, since the generals couldn't be bothered to allow supplies to be flown in. The government was the target of scathing international criticism for its indifference and incompetence.
Myanmar government spokesmen blandly announced that everything was under control, even as citizens pleaded that supplies be flown in, whether the government approved or not. Despite heavy-handed security, people were making sure the real story got out: ghastly scenes of the disaster-stricken areas taken with camcorders and printed to DVD could be easily obtained on the streets of Rangoon. UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon did his very diplomatic best to persuade the generals to allow more aid, but they were very slow to respond. However, the generals were diligent in extending the house arrest of democracy activist and Nobel peace prize winner Aun Sang Suu Kyi by another year.
* THE ECONOMIST ran an interesting article on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has long been regarded as an uninspiring and uninspired leader, not really up to the horrendous challenges faced by the Iraqi government, but he has proven, to a degree, effective.
The government assault on Shiite Sadrist militias in Basra conducted by the Iraqi National Guard earlier this year was widely judged a failure, with US and British troops finally being called in for backup, but now that the dust has settled, simple persistence has paid off: Iraqi troops are now generally if not perfectly in control of Basra. The national security picture is substantially better than it was a year ago.
True, it is very much due to much more intelligent tactics by the US military, but however it happened, it helps Nouri's government. Wealthy Sunni Arab states have long distrusted him, not caring for his Shiite background and the tilt of the Iraqi government towards Iran, but he has managed to badger them to pledge more support, and has been able to get them to at least discuss easing up on their demands for repayment of Iraqi debts racked up by Saddam Hussein. Europe, the US, and Russia have all done so.
There is some cause for optimism, but much can still go wrong. Mutual suspicions and frictions between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites remain strong, and the Shiite Sadrists remain a power to be reckoned with. Although Iraqi forces are effective in some regions, in others they will only fight when backed up by US troops. The war is far from over, but for now, Nouri remains firmly in control.
* Oil hit over $130 USD a barrel this last month, prompting worldwide anxiety. It dropped back down soon enough, but few feel certain things have really settled down, and nobody has much faith oil will ever go back under $100 USD. In the meantime, food prices are also rising rapidly. Also in the news, a young man got busted on a forgery charge for trying to cash a check for $360,000,000,000 in a Texas bank. I find it puzzling that he was arrested for it -- it had to have been a prank, nobody could be that dumb .... could they?BACK_TO_TOP
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Hitachi of Japan has now developed an RFID chip a 20th of a millimeter on a side and a tenth that thick. The "mu-chip" -- "mu" here standing for the Greek character of that name -- requires an antenna, usually a filamentlike strip, to operate, with an RFID reader driving power to the mu-chip through the antenna and then reading a 128-bit code back again. The code is fixed in ROM when the mu-chip is manufactured; the device has no programmable capability.
The primary target application is as an anticounterfeiting device, with the mu-chip embedded into securities, tickets, gift certificates, and cash. There have been privacy worries, with the mu-chip leading to the vision of police dusting crowds with mu-chips to allow people to be arrested later -- but the need for an antenna ensures it's not as simple as that.
* POPULAR MECHANICS ran an interesting article on microchip product counterfeiting, pointing out that the microelectronics business is now effectively global -- and that there was no reason that a foreign government couldn't arrange the production of processors or other devices that looked legitimate, but had "secret" subsystems that could be used by hackers to perform cyber-breakins.
The threat is that, once the chip is sealed, there's no real way to figure out what's going on inside of it. It can be tested to see if it meets the spec, but there's little way of figuring out if it can actually do something else. The only real security measure at present is to guard the supply chain, making sure that the chips came from where they were supposed to have come from. At present, the problem seems purely theoretical, since there's no evidence anyone's ever tried such tricks, but people are starting to give more thought about schemes to ensure the security of electronics components.
* A note in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN online reported on an interesting remote-control robot built by Rufus Terrill, owner of the O'TERRILL'S bar in Atlanta, Georgia, to act as a bouncer. The "Bum Bot" is built on a three-wheel electric cart powered by four automotive lead-acid batteries. It's fitted with a loudspeaker linked to a home walkie-talkie, a spotlight, an infrared video camera to record confrontational incidents, a water cannon in a rotating turret, and taillights from a 1997 Chevy that light up when the machine is active.
DOCTOR WHO fans may find the Bum Bot slightly reminiscent of a black Dalek, and it seems likely anyone being seriously drunk and disorderly would find being confronted by it extremely unsettling. However, homeless advocates claim Terrill has been using the Bum Bot to chase off local indigents. He says he has been effective in persuading drug dealers and whores to take their business elsewhere. An idea that has some chance of catching on?BACK_TO_TOP
* WORD PROBLEMS DEBUNKED? An article on SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("In Abstract: Avoid Concrete Examples When Teaching Math" by Nikhil Swaminathan) discussed the infamous "word problems" that plagued us during high-school math -- for example postulating a train leaving New York City for Atlanta at a certain speed, with a train leaving Atlanta for New York City at a different speed, and asking when the trains would pass each other.
A paper published by a group of researchers from Ohio State University (OSU) in AAAS SCIENCE suggests that such word problems aren't a very good way to teach math. One of the authors of the paper, Jennifer Kaminski, a cognitive science researcher at OSU, commented: "The primary goal of learning math is this ability to transfer that mathematical knowledge. Concrete examples might not be the best to promote transfer; they present a lot of extraneous information."
In the study, the OSU researchers developed a new mathematical system, based on simple arithmetic concepts, and taught it to four groups of undergraduates with 20 students in each group. One group was taught using abstract symbols such as circles and diamonds, while others were taught using practical scenarios, such as combining liquids in measuring cups. At completion of the class, the students were asked to apply the knowledge obtained to a new scenario, in this case a children's game. The group that had been taught with abstract symbols scored an average of 80%, while the other groups scored in the range of 40% to 50%.
The OSU researchers concluded that the extraneous details of the practical problem scenarios just introduced clutter that obscured the concepts the class was trying to teach. Some critics have pointed out, however, that the study also showed that good problem-solvers among the groups that learned by example scored as high or better than the symbols-only group. The OSU researchers admit the study is far from definitive, but feel it is past time that traditional math teaching methods got a good wire-brushing.
* ED: This reminds me a bit of an old Gary Larson cartoon from the 1980s that, as I vaguely recall it, was captioned "The Library Of Hell", exclusively featuring titles such as:
MATH WORD PROBLEMS MATH WORD PROBLEMS AGAIN YET MORE MATH WORD PROBLEMS SON OF MATH WORD PROBLEMS ...
I find the results of the study described above to be very plausible. When I was in Corporate customer support, our group generally dealt with people working on industrial control and measurement applications. They very often insisted on describing their application at length, though in the end the issue usually turned out to be something specific, for example performing a particular calculation. Handing us the entire application was just excess baggage that confused the issue, and we'd end up sorting through it to figure out what the customers really wanted to do.
Incidentally, while cluttering up a problem makes it harder to figure out, it also turns out that most people find it difficult to get rid of the clutter and reduce a problem to minimal specific terms. We could do it fairly well ourselves because we'd had plenty of practice at it. We would get frustrated with the management when they wanted to implement an online customer-support database and told us: "The customers want to be able to ask a specific question and get the exact answer to their problem." In vain did we protest that it was half the battle just to figure out what the question really was: "It doesn't work!"
"Please define NOT WORK."
-- and point out to the management that what they were asking for was a near-magical artificial intelligence expert system. But that is another story.BACK_TO_TOP
* RIDING THE FAST TRAIN: France does not have a reputation for being a very good environment for entrepreneurship and innovative capitalism, with a government that traditionally tends to see businesses as something to be leashed instead of assisted, and troublesome labor relations. As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Mr. High-Speed Europe", 23 February 2008), a close-up of Guillaume Pepy, boss of the French state railway corporation SNCF, shows this is something of a simplification and also a bit out of date.
SNCF is generally identified in the French public mind with the "Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV)" or "High-Speed Train", which can cruise at up to 300 KPH (190 MPH). The French tend to be technophiles and are proud of the TGV, but for years after its introduction into service in 1981 it was simply not making money. When Pepy took charge of the TGV service in 1997, he started marketing the service more aggressively and rationally, and also adopted business practices that had been proven at American Airlines, applying them to the TGV service to take on the low-end airlines.
Now there are 800 TGV runs a day, carrying 200 million passengers a year, with 80% bookings. A ticket from Paris to Marseilles is a thrifty 22 euros -- about $32 USD. Carriages on long-distance runs are organized as "Zen" environments, oriented towards rest and relaxation, or "Zap" environments, where the riders can get a buzz going. Special carriages are now being introduced to provide drinking and dancing, with gambling a possible option.
Pepy tends to break the mold of the ordinary French CEO. Such folks are usually the products of France's "grandes ecoles" that turn out the country's technical, scientific, business, and government brains. The grandes ecoles have high standards and they turn out highly competent graduates, but they also have a reputation for a certain snobbish elitism and conservative thinking. Pepy does have his roots in the grandes ecoles, being a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and starting his career as a tax judge. However, he wanted something a bit more exciting than the usual staid and comfortable career path of his colleagues; after the TGV was introduced, he decided that the railroads might well fit the bill.
At SNCF, he was put in charge of safety and labor relations, which was no fun because, as he commented: "Both were terrible at the time". Coming from a civil-servant background, the business environment also proved challenging, and in fact he eventually left to take charge of a Sofres, a marketing research company. Armed with new capabilities, he came back to SNCF to direct the TGV service in 1997, becoming CEO in 2003. As CEO, he took on the troublesome labor relations that had made TGV stoppages commonplace: train-driver's contracts had long been "featherbedded", allowing the drivers to retire at 50 with full pensions, but the government was never able to change matters -- until last fall, when the Sarkozy government backed Pepy in a successful effort to get the unions to sign a more rational contract.
Right now, the TGV is the star of SNCF: it only brings in a third of the organization's revenues, but it contributes a highly disproportionate share of the profits. This is surprising since state railways aren't generally big money-makers. The trick is that the double-decker TGVs can carry a lot of passengers, about a thousand per run, and because they're so fast, they can run at least twice a day on even the longest national routes. Speed not only equates to a shorter trip for the riders; it means more throughput for the train service. The TGV system has now extended its reach, with the Eurostar service reaching London and Brussels. In addition, the Railteam alliance of SNCF and seven other European railways, which will go into service at the end of 2008, will provide coordinated timetables and seamless online ticketing, making TGV even more attractive.
SNCF's business model also helps a great deal. While a public company, it is organized in a way that allows the management to operate with considerable autonomy and little political meddling. In essence, SNCF provides services to the French regions, who pay the organization to run less glamorous local services or extend TGV services on slower lines. Since the regions pay for what they get, there's no need to haggle over who gets what, and the politicians leave the management alone. SNCF is a money-maker, nobody wants to fiddle with it, nobody wants to privatize it.
Pepy's big challenge is to bring the SNCF freight service to a state of health. It's a money-loser, being plagued by bogus labor rules, and in a poor position to compete with more agile competitors such as Britain' EWS. Big clients such as Danone -- another major French business success story -- are after fast, pan-European freight services that don't stop at borders, and Pepy dreams of direct freight links that bypass city centers to provide efficient delivery of goods. Unfortunately, that means considerable investment and the French government is on a tight budget. Making the freights efficient also means slashing jobs, which will not be a popular idea. Reforming SNCF's freight service looks to be a much harder job to pull off than getting the TGVs to run right.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (6): The rain had stopped when I got up in Kissimmee, Florida, on Monday, 7 April, and in fact the weather was fine for the rest of my time in the South. Monday was a day of limited expectations, mostly catching the Disney attractions I'd missed on the previous trip. Since I was generally fed up with theme parks, I was really just ticking items off a list, and didn't think it would amount to all that much.
I'd wanted to canvass all the Disney resort facilities on this trip to see if I could get any interesting pix as I had of the Disney Swan-Dolphin complex on the previous trip, but given the size of Disney World, it was something of a challenge. I decided to divide the area into sectors and nail down each sector, one-by-one. I hit the non-Disney hotel area in the northeast part of the site first, and then cruised around the hotels in the Downtown Disney area.
As it turned out, in terms of getting shots it was a waste of time, since access to the hotel grounds is, to no surprise in hindsight, controlled; they are landscaped so that the world outside the grounds is generally invisible, which means that looking in is difficult as well; and there's no place to stop on the roads anyway. I had simply got lucky with the Disney-Swan hotels; if I wanted to hit the other ones, I would have had to freeload off the Disney transport system, which would have been very time-consuming.
From the point of view of photography, the survey was a waste of effort, but I decided to go through with it anyway, just because I found it interesting to map out the Disney complex in my head and figure out how to navigate around it. As it turned out, I'd would get shots of the hotels later, though in a way I hadn't figured on.
I ended up doing a loop around the Magic Kingdom theme park complex in the southwest. I was a little surprised that I was able to come right up to the gates of the Magic Kingdom without going through a parking toll plaza by coming through the back roads of the site. That seemed hard to believe, since Disney is far too organized to have missed something so obvious. Of course, as it turned out, they hadn't: there's no parking for visitors at the Magic Kingdom itself, I had to loop around to the Transportation & Ticket Center (TTC) to park, which put me through a toll plaza.
I was expecting to transfer from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom by monorail, but as I was walking up to the monorail station I noticed they also had access across one of the lakes via tidy double-deck ferryboats. I took that instead -- good choice, I got great shots of the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary resort complexes during the short cruise, as well as some interesting shoreline shots of the Magic Kingdom. There were various small boats cruising back and forth across the lake as well.
Actually, that part of the tour was more interesting than the Magic Kingdom itself, which was also no surprise -- like I said, I was just knocking items off a list. There was a big crowd coming into the gate as performers put on a 1890s-style song-and-dance act; I managed to weave through and get to Tomorrowland, where I took shots of the various props and decorations and did another visit to the Space Mountain roller-coaster. Although I've got tired of coasters, I still can't pass up Space Mountain -- there's something about rolling up the lift hill through the flashing lights of the "launch tube" that I don't get weary of.
The only other thing I did at the Magic Kingdom was visit the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, which I had missed when I got sick in September. I had heard it had been modernized, though I think it had just been refurbished and it was really a shrug. I found some of the decor around the Magic Kingdom more interesting, getting shots of meticulously cared-for flower beds, hanging flower baskets, and the little naval guns around the tree house -- complete with the kit used to prepare an old muzzle-loader for firing.
* I then took the monorail to EPCOT, where my agenda was similarly limited. One thing I had wanted to do was revisit MISSION SPACE and take the "tame" version of the ride to see how it compared with the centrifuge version, which had made me so ill during the September visit. It was mildly amusing to take the "trip to Mars" again, but that was all it was. I did ask a staffer as I was leaving how many gees the centrifuge version provided, and she said: "At maximum, almost three." That meant I had weighed about a quarter of a tonne!
I wanted to take in the SOARIN' ride again -- an impressive virtual reality hang-glider adventure over California that I had ridden at Disney Anaheim the year before -- but the wait was way long and I had didn't want to take the time. The only other thing I had on the list was visit THE LIVING SEAS exhibit, just to get some aquarium shots, and I got a few good ones.
That was the end of my lightning tour of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, and that was about as much use as I had for it. I took the monorail back to the TTC. I did get something of a bonus on the way back, since the USAF Thunderbirds flight demonstration team did an overflight of the Disney complex in their F-16s while I was going to my car. There was a big airshow going on that week -- more on this later -- and it seemed likely they were just "showing the flag" after the airshow display. I then left Disney to get lunch in Kissimmee. There was no way I was going to pay the prices Disney charged in their own restaurants. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* THE YELLOWSTONE MENACE (2): Nobody who has visited Yellowstone could have any doubt that the place is a volcanic hot spot. There's Mount Washburn, in the northern part of the park, which is an obvious volcano from its shape, a neat cone with a flattened top -- though the cone isn't so neat on its southern flank, which was ripped away by some violent geological event.
The landscape is dotted with steaming "mud pots", hot springs, and geysers. The Old Faithful geyser erupts about once every 90 minutes; that's only an average interval, however, and in reality it may be about half or twice that value. The interval between eruptions can be estimated from the size of the last eruption: a small eruption means a short interval, a big eruption means a long interval. The areas where geological activity is obvious are treacherous, since the ground is uncertain, presenting the danger of falling through into boiling water or steaming mud and being cooked alive. Boardwalks run through geyser sites to ensure that nobody gets hurt. Small earthquakes occur frequently at the park; larger earthquakes occur every now and then, like one in 1959 that killed dozens of people.
The hot springs of Yellowstone are generally very colorful, due to the work of "thermophilic" microorganisms that live in the hot water. There are other "extremophiles" in Yellowstone that live in highly acidic or alkaline waters. Since extremophiles generally can't survive under normal conditions, it is something of a puzzle as to where they came from. Did they come from hot springs elsewhere? How? Did they come from the bowels of the Earth? Thermophiles do seem to be common underground. Or did they simply evolve in place? A closer examination of their genetics should provide more clues.
The landscape of Yellowstone is patchy in appearance, with the vegetation sparse in some places, comparatively lush in others. The sparse places are fields of volcanic deposits; the lush places are soils that were pushed in by glaciers during the ice ages. The park supports a wide range of spectacular wildlife, leading to occasional confrontations in which large animals inflict considerable injury on naive tourists who don't understand that bison are nowhere near as placid as dairy cows; a bull elk isn't Bambi; and though bear cubs are cute, momma bear is not, and so the cubs are best left very much alone.
The precise nature of the park's vulcanism remained mysterious for decades. Increasingly detailed geological surveys were published, showing just how staggeringly extensive the volcanic formations of the park really were, but nobody had a clear idea of their origins. It hardly seemed that Mount Washburn or Mount Sheridan -- the other major volcano in the park -- could have provided it all. The only idea was that eruptions had occurred over a long period of time and the material had built up. Nobody really followed up Ferdinand Hayden's comment that Yellowstone appeared to be "one vast crater".
Except for the various modern active features like the geysers, all the park's geological activity seemed to be history, with a geologist named Arnold Hague writing late in the 19th century: "Indeed the region may be considered long since extinct." The seeming peacefulness was misleading. It wasn't until after the middle of the 20th century that the real nature of Yellowstone became clear, thanks to a revolution in geological thinking. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* TAKING A SHOT AT MICROCREDIT: An article by Amy Feldman in BUSINESS WEEK ("How I Became A Little-Guy Lender", 5 May 2008), discussed the author's experiences in becoming a microcredit lender on the "Prosper" website.
Microlending rotates around a website bringing small lenders together with small borrowers. It has a certain benign aspect in that it provides credit for borrowers who otherwise have little access to loans; it has a certain profitable aspect in that the interest rates can be high. In such "peer-to-peer" lending, a borrower lists a request for a loan from $1,000 to $25,000 USD and specifies a desired interest rate, say 15%. Lenders then bid on a slice of that loan, offering from $50 to $25,000 USD, submitting any interest rate up to the asking rate -- for example, somebody might bid 12%.
If there's no competition for making the loan, even if the lender underbids the asking rate, the loan gets made at the asked rate -- in this case, 15%. If there is competition, the low bidder gets to make the loan at the offered rate -- in this case, 12%. The loans are on three-year terms; a borrower can pay a loan off early, but a lender can't call a loan in before the end of the term. At the moment, there's no way to sell off a loan, but Prosper is working on that. Prosper gets a small cut on the transactions coming and going.
Borrowers are not personally identified, but they are assigned credit risk ratings, and anonymous reports provide lenders with data on borrower banking, employment, home ownership, debt-to-income ratio, and of course prior defaults. A lender may ask borrowers for additional information.
Of course, there's the threat of defaults. Recent history gives the overall default rate of Prosper borrowers as 4% overall -- but it's only half a percent for AA-rated borrowers, 1.4% for A-rated borrowers, and 1.8% for B-rated borrowers. The author of the article was conservative, lending out a total of $1,500 USD, with no single loan of more than $100 USD, and not touching any borrower rated lower than B.
Feldman reported averaging a return of 13.65% -- a fair profit, though on a small overall investment and with a substantial amount of effort involved. She did suggest that lenders not lend more than they are prepared to lose, and to bid at a level they feel comfortable with instead of chasing the lowest bid.BACK_TO_TOP
* IN-STORE ADVERTISING: Go into a Wal-Mart these days and there's no missing the flat-panel displays at checkout aisles and other strategic locations in the store, driving music videos and advertising to the shoppers. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("How Not To Annoy Your Customers", 5 January 2008), "in-store advertising (ISA)" is growing, though not everyone involved is certain of its virtues.
Wal-Mart seems to have made a success of the idea. The company started out with ISA ten years ago, through a partnership with Premier Retail Networks (PRN), a San Francisco-based arm of French technology giant Thomson. Wal-Mart is the world's biggest retailer and has ISA in 3,000 of its facilities. About 140 firms, including consumer-goods giants Procter & Gamble and Unilever, pay Wal-Mart and PRN to display ads in Wal-Mart stores. It seems to be worth the money: surveys show that ISA boosts sales by 2%.
Initially, Wal-Mart had a single in-store channel but now has six, covering food, electronics, health, and so on, with each channel appropriate to related sections of the store. Since shoppers are on the move, 30-second commercial spots, as used on TV, are no good, and so the commercials run from 5 to 15 seconds. They are displayed one or two at a time, interspersed with entertainment clips, weather reports, and cooking tips -- shoppers find non-stop commercials eye-glazing and tune them out. If the store is empty and quiet, the volume is turned down so as not to annoy the shoppers.
British supermarket giant Tesco is still a novice at ISA, having kicked off its own effort in 2004. The company's troubles with ISA show that it is a tricky concept, with advertisers so cool to signing up that Tesco almost junked it. However, "Tesco TV" was relaunched in 2006 with help from British marketing company Dunnhumby, and with tighter sales focus it has proven much more successful. For example, ISA ads are now often linked to in-store promotions.
There's a lot of interest in ISA from companies selling in emerging economies, since consumers aren't as jaded with the flood of flashy products as Westerners. International giant Carrefour is now working with PRN to implement ISA in its Brazilian stores, while in China a local firm, Focus Media, is selling the Chinese on ISA.
There are different business models for implementing ISA. In some cases, a organization like PRN simply pays a retailer to install the displays, with the organization then selling the advertising and pocketing the proceeds. In other cases, the retailer pays for installing the displays, hires a subcontractor to run the system, and keeps the revenue. ISA works best for big retailers, since the display systems are not cheap, running to about $4,000 USD each. Advertisers are also more eager to spend advertising money with big retailers who can promise to run ads on large number of displays.
The advertisers are still not entirely sure their money is being well-spent. A P&G official says the medium is immature and poorly understood, and so companies are still trying to figure out what role ISA should play in their advertising budgets. Since surveys show that 75% of the time, consumers make the decision on precisely what product to buy while they're shopping, advertisers feel that ISA certainly can play an important role -- as long as it can be shown that consumers actually pay attention to it and don't just tune it out.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE RETREAD TRADE: BUSINESS WEEK magazine occasionally likes to run articles on interesting businesses few actually realize exist. As an example, an article in the 21 April 2008 issue ("My Kingdom For A Tire" by Brian Hindo) focused on the business of retreading tires for surface-mine ore-hauler trucks.
Such "off the road (OTR)" vehicles dwarf the biggest dump truck found on a construction site; they could roll over the average house without too much trouble. Their tires are typically about 3.7 meters (12 feet) in diameter, weigh about 5.9 tonnes (6.5 tons), and cost up to $50,000 USD each. The trucks haul huge loads over gravel roads at surprisingly high speeds, about 65 KPH (40 MPH) -- surface mining is a high-throughput operation -- and so the OTR tires wear out after about 5,000 hours of use.
Once upon a time, the worn-out tires were just a nuisance to get rid of, and in some cases they were simply buried someplace on a mine site. Not any more. One of the consequences of the rush for commodities like metals and minerals in the 21st century was a massive ramp-up in mining activities, which meant more demand for OTR tires. However, being a specialized item that's not particularly easy to make, the manufacturing base for the tires was relatively small, and there was no way production could be expanded fast enough to keep up with demand. No tires meant OTR trucks worth millions of dollars each parked and idle, not earning their keep. By 2005, mining companies were desperate to find sources of replacement tires, with the cost of tires skyrocketing by a factor of three or more.
The big tire manufacturers, including Michelin, Goodyear, and Bridgestone, have been expanding production capacity, but given the rise in rubber prices the tire companies have been hurting as well. They've been reluctant to expand too quickly lest they be stuck with idle plant capacity when the mining boom pulls back, as it's certain to do sooner or later. The manufacturers have been rationing supplies to their biggest customers by granting them yearly allotments.
There had long been a few small shops that specialized in retreading OTR tires, but in the wake of the crunch on tire supplies the business has surged. Global mining giant Rio Tinto even went so far as to open up a company retread facility in Perth, Australia, in 2007, with the operation retreading a thousand tires a year. However, outfits like RDH Tire & Retread of Cleveland, North Carolina, are bigger players, with RDH pumping out 7,000 retreads in 2007. As an indication of the boom, RDH only churned out 4,000 retreads in 2004.
Retreading is a dirty, labor-intensive job that is difficult to automate, particularly since no two worn-out tires need exactly the same repairs. On arrival at the shop, the tire is inspected to determine what needs to be done with it. After inspection, the tire is rotated on a spindle and the tread is ground or "buffed" off. The buffing leaves various injuries behind, such as embedded rocks or nails, which have to be cut out by hand, a process called "skiving". After this surgery, the holes in the tire are patched with hot rubber and a layer of cement gum is applied, with the tire then mounted on a spindle again to be given a new layer of rubber. The rejuvenated tire is cooked in an enormous kettle; that done, a machine cuts new treads into the tire, with the treads smoothed out by hand. It takes about two weeks to retread a single tire. A typical retread costs about half as much as a new tire and lasts about 80% as long. Incidentally, the size and weight of the tires makes them a particularly troublesome load for truckers to haul across country.
At the peak of the boom, some mining firms were actually digging up buried discarded OTR tires. That source has pretty much dried up; there are "hustlers" who are still trying to unload old tires, but all that's left is junk, tires much too far gone to be retreaded. Supplies are still tight, but with the surge in retreading and gradual expansion of OTR production capacity, the days when mining companies were willing to pay anything to get tires have passed. Although retreaders still have much more business than they had in the past, they have been scaling back their operations gradually. Production capacity for new tires is expected to be in line with demand by 2011.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (5): I left Calhoun, Georgia, at daybreak on Sunday, 6 April, and headed south on Interstate 75. It was going to be an intensive day. I only had about ten hours driving, but I had to fit in three serious stops: the Atlanta Aquarium, then the Atlanta Zoo, and then the Warner-Robins Air Museum near Macon.
I got into downtown Atlanta and found the Atlanta Aquarium easily enough. Parking was a bit troublesome: the aquarium parking garage charges ten bucks a day and doesn't care if a visitor only stays an hour. If I'd been wise I would have picked one of the other lots in the area that only charged five.
That was a minor issue, and though the aquarium was expensive, it was worth the admission. As an aquarium -- as opposed to an aquatic park like Sea World -- it was the best I'd ever seen. The main tank had a viewing area that looked like a widescreen theater, and I was able to get some very nice shots, which is not easy to do in an aquarium. Very impressively, the main tank featured four whale sharks -- oversized gentle beasts that feed on krill. I was surprised they could keep them in captivity, but they had actually trained them to be hand-fed; each responded to its own color-coded feeding bucket.
The main tank had other vistas, one being a porthole in a darkened corner. It turned out to be a half-sphere inserted into the tank, though its optical characteristics focused reflections to the front and it appeared to be flat. A couple standing behind me were laughing as I gradually stuck my arm "through" the porthole and didn't make contact with the surface until I had reached in up to my shoulder. It looked about as spooky as anything that could actually happen in the real world. "It's all done with mirrors."
The other "star" exhibit at the aquarium was a group of belouga whales in their own tank. They're like large dolphins, but are snow white and feature short "beaks", plus a swollen forehead. I was able to get some adequate shots but they didn't come out as well as those of the main tank. The aquarium had plenty of other small tanks as well, one with a set of "grass eels", which are small eels that live in holes in the seafloor, waving out of their holes like grass; jellyfish; big spider crabs; horseshoe crabs in an open pool, creepy little beasts; gars; piranhas; and so on. Those visiting Atlanta shouldn't pass it up.
* Then it was over to the Atlanta Zoo. I had printed out directions that took me through city streets, but that was a bad idea. On trying to follow them I ended up going in circles: driving and reading directions at the same time was complicated enough, street closures made matters worse. I ended up doubling back to the freeways and following them, which was the approach I should have used to begin with. Navigation was to be more difficult on this trip than I expected.
I did finally get to the zoo in good time. I would have rated it a fairly ordinary good zoo, with some nice orangutan and gorilla enclosures, but it had an impressive giant panda exhibit. The admission to the zoo was a bit steep, but considering what the Chinese charge for loaning pandas, not all that inappropriate. I got some excellent shots of the pandas in various poses, some snoozing and some active. They were also conducting a show with Larry, an African gray parrot who was talkative as his kind tends to be, and I was able to get a good shot of him as well -- yet another item I had been after.
* I went through the zoo rapidly and got on the highway south to Macon, to then drop in to the Warner-Robins Air Museum. It was a fairly ordinary air-base-associated museum, with a nice selection of aircraft in variable condition. The hangers were surprisingly empty, so it appeared the staff were gradually reconditioning the aircraft for display and they weren't being left to rot indefinitely. I did get some good pix of a English Electric Lightning supersonic fighter; it was something of a surprise, since of course foreign aircraft are under-represented in American air museums.
Warner-Robins was a worthwhile stop but nothing to write home about. I got back on I-75 and continued south. The terrain was becoming more pleasant the farther south I went, since the trees had all leafed out, and there were smatterings of trees covered with violet flowers. Of course, suffocating kudzu vines were also increasingly in evidence. It was a fairly long drive, however, and I amused myself by adjusting my mirrors and practicing keeping a better eye out to what was going on behind me. Although I'd had my Toyota Yaris for almost two years, I'd never got to the same level of "situation awareness" to the rear sector that I'd had with my old Toyota Tercel, and I'd had a few close calls.
Although the trip had been dry up to that time, as I got into southern Georgia it began to cloud up. By the time darkness fell I was approaching Ocala, Florida, and it was raining. As I headed down the Florida Turnpike towards Orlando, the rain turned into a driving drizzle, which did not seem like a good omen for my Florida visit. I was amused as I was going down the turnpike to be passed by one of those little two-seater SmartCars -- it was the first time I'd seen one on the open road. It had no problem keeping up with the traffic -- which was a bit ironic, since I tend to be a 65 MPH (105 KPH) driver while the regular traffic does 75 MPH (121 KPH). The Yaris can do faster easily but it seems most comfortable at that speed, and I get better gas mileage anyway. I usually end up getting behind a tractor-trailer rig and cruising along with it to pace myself, though not too close lest I eat rocks tossed up by the freight hauler's tires.
I got into Kissimmee, south of Orlando, and crashed out at the Super 8. For the first time on the trip I got a good night's sleep. Running short nights on a regular basis grinds me down to exhaustion. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* THE YELLOWSTONE MENACE (1): Yellowstone National Park, in the northwest corner of the US state of Wyoming, is a natural treasure, full of grand scenery, wildlife, hot springs, and geysers. A recent book, titled SUPER VOLCANO by Greg Breining, gives an interesting and somewhat unsettling survey of the fascinating geology of Yellowstone.
Indian tribes had of course known about the land of hot springs and geysers for as long as they had been around, but the first white man documented as visiting the area was John Colter, who had been a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition but then struck out on his own, making a difficult trek through Yellowstone in the winter of 1807:1808. Fur trappers and explorers passed through it in the course of the following decades, finding the hot springs useful for cooking and later reporting on the geysers that spouted out of the ground, some on a regular basis.
The first reasonably detailed survey of Yellowstone was performed in 1869 by three gold miners -- David E. Folsom, Charles W. Cook, and William Peterson. On their return, Folsom went to work for Henry D. Washburn, who had been a Union general of volunteers during the Civil War and was at that time the surveyor general of Montana Territory. Washburn was intrigued by Folsom's description of the fascinating landscape, and went there himself in 1870. He was accompanied by some colleagues, including a politician and businessman named Nathaniel P. Langford, plus a detachment of US Army troops under Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane.
The Washburn-Doane expedition yielded a fairly good survey of the area, naming important landmarks such as the "Old Faithful" periodic geyser. Washburn and Doane were both excited over the beauty and scientific interest of the landscape. Washburn's report, titled "The Yellowstone Expedition", attracted considerable interest, particularly from a US government geologist named Ferdinand V. Hayden. Langford went back East and lectured on the expedition, with politicians and Hayden showing up to hear what he had to say.
In 1871, Hayden led a full-fledged scientific expedition to Yellowstone, featuring a team of researchers, as well as an artist and a photographer. Hayden was also impressed by the scenery, though he considered it with a geologist's eye, writing perceptively: "It might be called one vast crater, made up of thousands of smaller volcanic vents and fissures out of which the fluid interior of the Earth, fragments of rock, and volcanic dust were poured in limitless quantities ..." It would take almost a century to determine that Hayden's concept of the area as "one vast crater" was precisely on the mark.
Almost all the surveys of Yellowstone suggested that it be preserved as a national park, and on 1 March 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill into law establishing it as one. Langford became the first superintendent. Incidentally, the area is named Yellowstone because of the Yellowstone River, which has yellow sandstone banks downstream. The name doesn't have much in specific to do with any local features. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT
* PRINTED MICROTECH: IEEE SPECTRUM recently ran an interesting article ("Printing Technology Makes Miniature Energy Harvesters, Antennas, and Fuel-Cell Parts" by Samuel K. Moore, February 2008) on a new fabrication scheme for electronic components.
In response to new safety regulations, autos sold in the US must now be fitted with electronic tire-pressure sensors to warn a driver that the tires are going flat. The current tire-pressure sensor technology leaves much to be desired, however, since it involves a battery-powered module that has to be replaced periodically, and which is overly complicated -- making it expensive and reducing its reliability. Auto and tire makers are now working with a startup named EoPlex Technologies, from Redwood City, California, to come up with a better solution.
The new sensor can be mounted on the wheel or even be embedded in the walls of the tire. It requires no electrical connections, communicating its data by wireless, and requires no batteries -- thanks to an EoPlex gimmick that the company calls a "piezo-electric transducer (PZT) bimorph". Despite the long-winded name, the PZT bimorph is conceptually simple, consisting of what looks like a miniature springboard with a mass on the end, fabricated using EoPlex's proprietary three-dimensional printing fabrication technology. The board is made of layers of piezoelectric material and metal conductors; when it bounces around, it converts the vibrations into a few tens of microwatts of electric power, which is stored in a capacitor. The sensor wakes up periodically and drains the capacitor to relay current tire-pressure data to a receiver in the car.
PZT bimorphs are not a new idea, but it's been difficult to manufacture them cheaply or small enough. The EoPlex process creates the device by printing a pattern of metals and ceramics using a proprietary paste, building up a three-dimensional structure by laying down multiple layers. Since the 3D structure may include voids, EoPlex has created a special "negative" paste that is buried in the layers, with careful heating causing the negative paste to evaporate away -- even when the resulting void is completely enclosed in the 3D structure, a neat trick.
The auto industry is conservative and the PZT bimorph technology won't be introduced until it goes through several years of qualification, but EoPlex is working on other products based on their 3D printing technology, for example a compact antenna for cellphones. The company is particularly proud of a matchbox-sized "methanol reformer", a tiny chemical plant that converts methanol -- wood alcohol -- into hydrogen for use with a fuel cell system.
The military and other users are very interested in fuel-cell power systems for portable gear, since a liter of methanol could provide the same amount of power as ten kilograms of batteries. Says an EoPlex official: "This is the most sophisticated thing we've ever built. It's made up of more than 300 layers and has chambers, channels, mixers, vents, and pipes as well as a bed of platinum catalyst that breaks the methanol into hydrogen and carbon dioxide." The company hopes to have it in production by the end of 2008.BACK_TO_TOP
* GEOTHERMAL ENERGY EVERYWHERE? Geothermal energy has always been associated with locales noted by volcanic activity, such as Iceland or New Zealand, and hasn't been seen as appropriate for other locations. As discussed in an article from THE ECONOMIST website ("Down & Dirty"), in principle there's no reason that geothermal energy can't be obtained at almost every location on the face of the Earth. After all, temperature increases by at least 25 degrees Celsius per kilometer (72 degrees Fahrenheit per mile) of depth below the surface of the Earth: find a temperature difference, and it can be used to generate energy.
The problem is that the temperature difference needs to be about 150 degrees Celsius (270 degrees Fahrenheit), which means a geothermal borehole kilometers deep. Such deep boreholes are not trivial nor cheap to drill. However, Wulf Brandt of the German National Research Center of Geosciences in Potsdam thinks the idea has potential, which is why he's set up a project to drill a 4.4 kilometer (2.75 mile) deep borehole at Gross Schoenebeck, outside of Berlin.
To complicate matters, since geothermal energy normally leverages off underground hot springs, it only requires one borehole. Brandt's scheme requires two: one borehole to pump cold water down, the other to draw up the hot water. Brandt was able to cheat a bit, since one hole had already been bored by a gas exploration company; the hole didn't pay off, so it was free for Brandt's use. He bored the second hole 400 meters (1,300 feet) away from the first, which would allow the water to be properly heated up as it migrated between the two holes.
The question was whether the water drawn back to the surface would be available in enough quantity and at a high enough temperature to make power generation commercially practical. At the outset, it wasn't, but Brandt was careful to align the two holes so that he could exploit the subsurface tension caused by the slow grinding impact of the European and Eurasian tectonic plates. The cold water, which was pumped down at a pressure of 500 atmospheres, worked with the subsurface tension to widen existing fissures and create new ones. A grit of sand and corundum was also added to the cold water to ensure that the fissures stayed open.
The flow rate is now adequate to generate electricity, though it remains to be seen if the flow can be sustained. If the scheme can be made to work, it would allow us to tap into an inexhaustible source of energy. It should be noted, however, that any one site will gradually cool off until it can no longer be used for power generation. Brandt believes it would take about 30 years to tap out Gross Schoenebeck.BACK_TO_TOP
* FORTRESS MANHATTAN: The Ring of Steel, the security system that protects the inner City of London, is well-known despite the fact that many of its details remain secret. Now, as reported by an article from WIRED Online ("NYC Is Getting A New High-Tech Defense Perimeter" by Noah Shachtman), a comprehensive security system is being put in place around Lower Manhattan.
The district contains a list of prime targets for terrorist attacks: the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve Bank, City Hall, plus four major bridges and tunnels. One hefty truck bomb detonated at any of these targets would kill hundreds of people, produce billions of dollars worth of damage, and shake global financial markets. Al Qaeda has attacked Lower Manhattan twice, in 1993 and 2001, and several other plots have been broken up since.
Security is now much tighter in the area than it was before 911. Today, explosive-sniffing dogs and two truckloads of cops, decked out in kevlar and carrying M-4 automatic carbines, surround the flag-draped stock exchange. Vehicle traffic has been blocked off on several strategic streets, and in fact there are some streets where only cleared personnel are allowed. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has acquired an impressive arsenal of high-tech gear to conduct the war on terror, for example helicopters with long-range electro-optic cameras and wireless datalinks.
However, Lower Manhattan is all about business, and security can be only so heavy-handed before it starts making business impossible. That means rethinking security in a comprehensive way, to be as much or more reliant on discreet high-tech as on heavy-metal brute force. Although the entire city is getting upgrades, the financial district is ground zero for attacks, and so it demands special treatment.
In June 2006, the NYPD announced a three-year, $106 million USD plan called the "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI)" to greatly improve security in the district. The centerpiece of the LMSI is an array of 3,000 cameras, the first of which went online early this year. The camera system is fully networked and very "smart", programmed to highlight unusual activities for close-up inspection. Electronic license-plate readers, both stationary and mounted on police vehicles, can already scan thousands of cars and day and immediately alert police if a suspect in a database enters the financial district. Moving vehicle barriers are to be installed that can block off streets on command.
The city is not bearing the entire cost of the LMSI: about 2,000 of the 3,000 cameras will be privately owned. The city is also requiring that anyone who wants to build a new skyscraper submit the blueprints to the city government so that the plans can be reviewed for security. Ultimately, the idea is to have plans online for access in a crisis, with the police able to control every aspect of a building's operation.
* The question remains of just how effective these measures will be. The London Ring Of Steel, which was conceived in the days of Irish Republican Army terrorism, is regarded as a very effective security system, but though all the bombers who struck the London transport system on 7 July 2005 were spotted on camera, it did no good. Since they were on suicide missions, they didn't care if they were videotaped. Two weeks later, another attempted attack was foiled only because of the incompetence of the terrorists; the Ring Of Steel once again accomplished little.
NYC officials are aware of these issues and admit that a dumb video surveillance system provides little protection against a suicide attack. However, they feel that the LMSI is much smarter and will be much more effective against terrorists. Video camera intelligence technology is advancing rapidly and can already be programmed to set off alarms for certain behaviors, for example terrorists casing out a target in preparation for an attack. If someone sneaks around the back of the New York Stock Exchange or lingers too long in from of the Federal Reserve, the police are going to be very interested in him, and will be able to track his movements in great detail.
The video system is back up by impressive manpower. The NYPD intelligence unit used to be minimal, amounting to a handful of cops whose job was to protect VIPs, but now it's a 500-person organization, headed by a former CIA director of operations and so loaded up with Harvard brainpower that during sports events more of the staff cheer the Boston Red Sox than the New York Yankees. Plainclothes operatives check out terror suspects locally and perform investigations overseas, while others work on Operation NEXUS -- talking with local and national businesses to make sure that suspicious bulk purchases of, say, fertilizer or hydrogen peroxide are reported to the authorities. The NYPD is said to have even built duplicates of terrorist bomb labs to train staff on what to be on the lookout for. More than 1,000 NYPD officers are dedicated to the counterterrorism mission, while the other 37,000 are drilled to make counterterrorism a basic element of their job.
* There's still much to do. The radio systems of NYC emergency workers proved inadequate on 9-11, lacking range and compatibility between organizations. The city is now working on a fix, implementing the $500 million "New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN)", dedicated to government communications, to provide high-bandwidth wireless communications for all city services. Not only will it provide seamless voice communications, it will allow transfer of images from security cameras and helicopter surveillance imagers, and will also allow city vehicles to be tracked on digital maps. At last notice, NYCWiN coverage of Manhattan was about 70% complete.
Not everything is going so smoothly. In the summer of 2005, after the London transport system attacks, the New York subway system signed a deal with defense contractor Lockheed Martin to install security cameras, motion sensors, perimeter sensors, and intelligent video. So far, only three of 16 system components are in place. The problem is that the subway system, which is over a century old, was never designed to accommodate such gear, and shoehorning it in so it works effectively has proven difficult. The project is far over budget and way behind schedule.
Once again, however, there is the question of how effective modern security systems are even when they work according to spec. NYPD officials admit that to a considerable extent they see the LMSI security camera system as a means of planting uncertainty in the minds of potential terrorists. Can the security systems absolutely rule out terrorist attacks? Of course not, nobody believes that. Exactly how effective the systems need to be below that impossible threshold to be worth their cost and effort is a matter of opinion. Even given a opinion, it would be difficult to provide strong data to back it up. Unfortunately, in warfare honest certainty is a luxury rarely granted to warfighters.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (4): I left Boonville, Missouri, early on the morning of Saturday, 5 April. I had a single stop that day, the Saint Louis Zoo. I was a bit surprised to find during trip preparation that the zoo was free, though I was supposed to pay for parking. Actually, I got there at opening time and they hadn't staffed the parking lot booth, so I didn't even pay for that.
At free, the Saint Louis zoo is a real bargain because it's a five-star zoo by almost any standards. The entry building is very nicely put together and modern, with full-scale and pretty models of a giant squid, manta ray, and hammerhead shark hanging from the ceiling. There's a nice "insect zoo" building marked by a giant stag beetle statue at the entrance and with a very nice butterfly pavilion as an annex.
The insect zoo leads to a long nature trail with animals in big open-air enclosures -- the zoo has very few cages, which is good not only for the animals but for shutterbug visitors, since there's no bars to obstruct shots. At the end of the trail there's primate and reptile buildings. Usually reptile buildings are kind of dull, but this one was big and impressive, with a central court set up as a jungle-covered cayman pond.
The far end of the zoo featured another row of open-air enclosures. The inhabitants were nothing all that unusual -- cranes, storks, gazelles, peccaries, and so on -- but the ambiance was pleasant. One enclosure had a little herd of petite Speke's gazelles and, unusually for zoo animals, they seemed very interested in me. I got a set of shots of them, mostly with them staring right at me in what seemed to be great kindly curiosity. Maybe they found me funny-looking? I supposed zoo animals have to get their entertainment, too.
The zoo had a big exotic-bird house, but it wasn't easy to get good shots out of it. The only thing I managed to get right was a set of pix of an Aussie kookaburra, an oversized species of kingfisher. They weren't the best shots but I'd been after that one for a while. I then traced back down to the center of the zoo, past sea lion pools to the central pond, which featured pelicans, mergansers, and other birds "just passing through". That left one corner to canvass, with the ape enclosure and a walk-through aviary modeled on a southern swamp. I managed to pick up some nice shots of bluejays, another thing I had been after for a while. We have bluejays in Colorado, though not the same species, but it seems to be the custom with brightly-colored birds to be skittish and very difficult to get close to.
* The zoo was impressive and I spent longer than I planned there. It was time well spent, but it put me a bit behind schedule. I left Saint Louis, cutting a corner through Illinois on the way South. I had been a little surprised during trip planning when I looked over the map of southern Illinois and traced out my route to find that it went through the town of Metropolis. Hmm, isn't that the place that's set up on a Superman theme? Alas, since I was running behind, I couldn't spare the time to stop.
Although the skies were clear and the weather pleasant as I cruised over the Ohio River into Paducah, Kentucky, past Fort Campbell and then into Tennessee, it had been flooding in the area over the past few weeks and the low-lying areas were still thoroughly wet -- forests along the road were knee-deep in water in places. After I popped through Nashville on the freeway I started getting into the higher ground, cruising through the hills around Chattanooga and into north Georgia as darkness set in.
I made my night stop in Calhoun, Georgia, about a hour's drive north of Atlanta, running late again -- I took some time to get the rest of the mud off my car. The hotel room was second-rate. The bathtub was so short I couldn't sit with my legs stretched out in it. Admittedly my legs are well longer than average, but the bathtub still gave me the impression of being designed for 12-year-olds. At least the water was hot and the bed was comfortable. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- WASTES & RECYCLING (3): Recycling seems like a modern notion, but it's actually been around for a long time. Scrapyards and junkyards are nothing new; we've been recycling scrap steel and other metals for decades.
Recycling automobiles is a highly refined process. On arrival at the junkyard, all the valuable fittings are removed for sale, all fluids are drained, and then the car is flattened, baled, or shredded. Hydraulic press systems do the flattening or baling, which allows the compressed cars to be conveniently hauled off on a truck or railroad car. Shredding is now preferred, because it allows the useless "fluff" -- carpets, plastic fittings, and so on -- to be separated from the valuable metal. There was a time when the hulks of cars were simply burned to get rid of the fluff, but that was a noxious process and it is now out of style. Shredders tear the car into bits about the size of popcorn. The steel is easy to separate from the shred, using magnets, and the light fluff can be separated with blowers.
Separating out nonmagnetic metals like copper and aluminum is more troublesome. More modern "eddy current" separation systems use a varying magnetic field to induce a current into aluminum objects, with the induced current in the aluminum setting up an opposite magnetic field that ejects the it from the sorter.
One part of a car that is particularly troublesome to recycle is the tire. Tires can't go into an ordinary landfill, and in some places there's no specific place to dump them, so they tend to pile up. Shredded tires do actually make a pretty fair fuel, better than coal, and have been used to fire cement kilns -- though this leads to emissions worries again.
* The part of recycling that seems new is the recycling of household wastes. Actually, it is a change, in the sense that before modern "green" consciousness, the only materials that were recycled were those where there was a definite profit in doing so. That isn't the case for most household recyclables.
Recycling has become a weekly ritual for urban dwellers, who diligently put out their recycle bins and generally try to follow the rules. There was a time when city sanitation departments were particularly enthusiastic about the rules, but became less enthusiastic when it was discovered that recycling wasn't as easy or profitable as expected. However, although recycling did suffer setbacks in the early days, technology has helped matters considerably in recent years, with "smart" sorting systems now available to help sort out recyclables in a cost-effective fashion.
Nowdays, in the US over 30% of MSW is recycled, up from about 10% in 1980. Increases in resource costs are helping recycling, since it is becoming more profitable in general to recycle -- in fact, a good portion of America's recycled materials is sold to China. Some critics suggest that the materials end up in Chinese landfills instead, but since they're paying for the material that is extremely unlikely. It's not so unlikely when we pay them to take materials off our hands, and there has been a problem in disposing of "e-waste" -- old electronic systems, particularly personal computers, which tend to be very difficult to dispose of. Electronic firms are under increasing political pressure to factor disposal of their products into the product life-cycle.
Recycling tends to be pushed these days because it is getting harder to site landfills. The problem is not really one of running out of places to put them -- they don't take up very much land. The problem is that nobody wants to have them next door, a matter embodied in the catchphrase NIMBY: "Not In My Back Yard". Some activists go further, pushing BANANA: "Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody" -- or even NOPE: "Not On Planet Earth".
Despite government efforts to push recycling, 100% recycling isn't in the cards for the foreseeable future. The percentage of recycled materials is definitely going to increase, particularly as manufacturers spend more effort to design products with their ultimate disposal in mind, as they are being increasingly forced by laws to do. However, there's going to still be a good portion left over, and the refuse has to go somewhere.
* And so, after 26 months of installments, ends this survey of modern infrastructure. One of the interesting themes in this survey is that modern infrastructure technology is highly automated, much more so than most people realize. Operations such as farming, mining, and shipyard work that once required mass muscle power now are run heavily by machines under the direction of a handful of specialists with the knowledge of how to use them.
There is still some sentimentality for the quaint old ways of making things. People tend to find mills with water-wheels fascinating; they are not so fascinated by modern agritech mills. Factory farms with regiments of chickens and hogs, huge powerplants, and automated railyards seem unpleasant and repellent. Much is made of the notion that modern economies are based on the production of "softer" goods like electronics and software, but ultimately we're still stuck with producing food and metals and going through the grungy motions of keeping a city running.
The fact that the world is increasingly automated also has the effect of isolating the citizens from the systems that keep them alive. We may go through our lives and not pay real attention to the infrastructure systems that surround us, though we would find out how important they were if they were to abruptly disappear. Conventional education curricula tend to be just as oblivious to infrastructure. Hopefully this series has done its little bit to correct that imbalance. [FINAL END OF SERIES]START | PREV
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: I've been noticing the increasing use of commercial fingerprint ID systems. According to an AP article, they're starting to really catch on, with employers using them as a much improved replacement for employee time sheets. Employees use an index finger print or palm print to show when they come in and go out, with the machine tracking their time spent in the office or shop or factory. Ingersoll-Rand Corporation says it has sold 150,000 scanners to Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, Hilton Hotels, and the US Marine Corps -- the Marines use them to track civilian employees.
Workers who are used to punching time cards aren't particularly upset about the scanners, finding them less of a nuisance, but those less used to having their time tracked find it creepy and annoying. One union official said: "They don't even have to hire someone to harass you anymore. The machine can do it for them." A plan by the New York City municipal government to install scanners has led to loud protests. The city government replies that the current system of time cards is prone to fakery and also requires that the city staff hundreds of timekeepers to track the 160,000 employees. Automating the process is expected to cut $60 million USD in expenses. City officials say all the system records are the print plus times of coming and going; it isn't a master spy database on the employees.
* SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online had a short article on an interesting "developing world" technology: a "drinking straw" from an organization named the Vestergaard Fransen Group that could be used to safely drink from impure water sources. The "Lifestraw", as it's called, is kind of a hefty "straw", roughly about the size of the cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels. It's loaded up with filters made from halogenated resins that kill nearly all the microorganisms in the water and also trap elemental contaminants like iodine and metals like silver. However, it cannot trap heavy metals like iron and there are some parasites that can slip through. One Lifestraw can clean a total of 700 liters (185 US gallons) of water before it has to be replaced. The group is also introducing a larger system, the "Lifestraw Family" device, based on the same principles, that can handle a total of 15,000 liters (4,000 US gallons).
* Another little note on SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online addressed an issue I've long been curious about: does turning a fluorescent lamp on and off tend to consume more energy than just leaving it on? I knew it took a little surge of energy to get a fluorescent lamp operating, but I didn't know how much. In reality, the startup consumes the power equivalent of a few second's operation of the lamp. Yeah, if I sat there and turned the lamp on and off continuously, I'd be guzzling power; if I turned it off when I left the room to get a drink and turned it back on again when I got back, I'd be ahead for the game for power consumption.
However, turning the lamp on and off does impact its lifetime. Researchers who have considered the economics say that it makes sense to turn off the lamp for an absence of five minutes or more. Since the lamp lifetime is long in any case, the electricity consumed is far more the economic factor in the lamp's operation -- and since lamps are continuously improving these days, the future replacements are likely to be cheaper, more efficient, and more long-lived anyway.BACK_TO_TOP
* FAT FIGHT: The alarming news of an "epidemic of obesity" making headlines over the past few years has led to a counter-revolution by critics who find the matter overblown. As discussed in an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Can Fat Be Fit?" by Paul Raeburn, September 2007), the issue has become extremely confusing. There are those who suggest that the "epidemic" of obesity may be related simply to new or different ways of obtaining statistics on the matter, and that the staggering rise in mortality being predicted simply hasn't happened.
It is certainly known that it is unhealthy to be obese, with highly overweight people having increased risk of heart attacks, diabetes, and some sorts of cancer. Nobody seriously contests that notion, it being consistent with common experience, but there is an argument over whether it is unhealthy to be slightly overweight. The conventional wisdom is that being overweight is unhealthy, but a few years ago Katherine M. Flegal, a researcher at the US Centers For Disease Control & Prevention, published a study based on national survey data on obesity and confounded everyone by saying that slightly overweight adults had less risk of dying than thinner adults.
One of the problems is defining "overweight". The standard measure is the "body mass index (BMI)", which is body weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. A BMI of more than 25 is regarded as overweight; a BMI of more than 30 is obese. The problem is that human physiques vary considerably and it's hard to make a useful generalization based on such a calculation. There are pro athletes with a BMI of 30 -- which is not all that surprising, since muscle is denser than fat.
Flegal's study was ammunition for a faction of writers critical of the conventional wisdom on obesity. Few of the critics had any medical qualifications or had conducted serious studies to back up their claims; some sounded crankish because they accused anti-fat scientists had been corrupted by ties to drug makers and weight-loss clinics. There is, however, a serious component to the argument. It is claimed that obesity costs Americans tens of billions of dollars a year in health care and lost productivity -- but what if the crusade against fat is not merely bogus, but actually counterproductive? Scientists involved in nutrition research find the whole feud exasperating, saying that decades of studies back up the notion that fat is bad for us.
Flegal's study has been criticized on the basis that the "lean" group included smokers and patients with chronic illnesses, who are not surprisingly underweight; cut them out of the picture and being slightly overweight doesn't look so attractive any more. Flegal has admitted that she didn't exclude the chronically ill from her study, but claims she performed additional work that showed it would have made no real difference if she had. The argument rests on the fine details of statistical analysis. For now, the accepted wisdom says to keep BMI between 20 and 25, preferably towards the low end of the range. Take off a few kilos of fat and most of the available evidence says you'll be better off for it.
ED: Another interesting item along this line that I picked up elsewhere concerned the 2004 documentary movie SUPERSIZE ME, in which journalist Morgan Spur lock pigged out on McDonald's food and found his health going downhill while his waistline exploded. The judgement of the experts was that the movie amounted to little but propaganda. In 2006, a research study was conducted in Sweden in which 18 volunteers were put on a junk food diet, with their progress carefully observed medically. The results were that some of the subjects did gain weight rapidly, while others didn't -- in fact, some put on muscle even though they weren't exercising.BACK_TO_TOP
* CLIMATE CHANGE & THE SUN: Although skepticism that human carbon emissions are causing global warming is gradually fading, doubts still linger -- and with some good reason, since climate is a very complicated phenomenon, influenced in difficult-to-predict ways by a large number of variables.
It is, for example, very plausible that variations in the behavior of the Sun would have an effect on climate. A Danish scientist named Henri Svengali of the Danish National Space Center (DNSC) has suggested that the Sun's particle output, which streams past the Earth as the "solar wind", has increased over the past few decades. The higher density of the solar wind means that fewer cosmic rays -- highly energetic particles from deep space -- strike the Earth's upper atmosphere. Such collisions ionize atoms in the atmosphere, helping to form clouds; fewer collisions mean fewer clouds, and, since clouds reflect solar energy, a hotter Earth.
This is certainly an interesting theory, and given that the debate over global warming can become emotional, not merely an abstract one. Are we raising a hysterical fuss over carbon emissions when the warming trend has nothing to do with them and doesn't pose a long-term threat? A controversial British documentary titled THE GREAT GLOBAL WARMING SWINDLE used Benchmark's theory as part of its brief, helping the video reach the conclusion that global warming is the "biggest scam of modern times".
Now a paper published in the ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH LETTERS of the Institute of Physics and written by a team of researchers from Lancaster University in the UK examined the correlation between solar wind density and global temperatures over the last 20 years. The team used three different approaches to check the correlation, and all three gave the same answer: there wasn't one of any significance. Says Professor Terry Sloan of the Lancaster team: "For example, sometimes the Sun 'burps', it throws out a huge burst of charged particles. So we looked to see whether cloud cover increased after one of these bursts of rays from the Sun. We saw nothing."
The Sun has a predictable 11-year activity cycle, with the study straddling two cycles. In the first cycle, there was a weak correlation with cloud cover, but at most it could have only explained a quarter of the change in cloudiness. In the second cycle, no correlation was observable. Benchmark's theory has also been criticized by Mike Lockwood of the UK's Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, with Lockwood showing that there has been an overall reduction in solar activity for the last 20 years, at the very same time the globe has been clearly getting hotter.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was heavily targeted by THE GREAT GLOBAL WARMING SWINDLE, which criticized the IPCC's conclusions that from the time global temperatures began rising rapidly in the 1970s, the contribution of humankind's greenhouse gas emissions has outweighed that of solar variability by a factor of about 13 to one. Says Terry Sloan: "We tried to corroborate Benchmark's theory, but we could not. As far as we can see, he has no reason to challenge the IPCC -- the IPCC has got it right. So we had better carry on trying to cut carbon emissions."BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (3): I left Loveland, Colorado, early on the morning of Friday, 4 April. When we'd switched daylight savings time a few weeks before, instead of getting up an hour earlier, I decided to jump back two hours, so instead of getting up at five as my usual custom I was getting up at four. That meant I would be adjusted to getting up at six on East Coast time -- no sense in making a trip more tiring by screwing up my sleep routine. Getting up at six made more sense than getting up at five when playing tourist, since it matched the day better to the operating hours of attractions.
The weather was pleasant and cool, cool enough to keep the bugs down, though there was one thing I hadn't considered: in early April all the deciduous trees haven't leafed out yet, making the scenery a bit bleak for the drive. It was no big deal, but I realized that since I've always lived in the West, it was something not obvious to me. Here, the forests are predominantly evergreen and look pretty much the same the year round.
My first stop was at the Natural History Museum in Hays, Kansas -- an item I'd noticed on the return leg of the previous trip, but it had been closed that day. It was a nice, clean, modest facility, multiple levels in a dome, not particularly extensive but with some nice fossil skeletons in the spiral gallery and set of dinosaur replicas at the top. It was worth seeing, but only because I was passing by -- it wouldn't have been worth my time to go out of my way to see it.
Actually, the most interesting item on that stop was the statue of a perching pterodactyl with young on a pedestal alongside the ramp back onto the interstate. I had to get some shots of it -- however, like a dummy, when I pulled off the side of the ramp I misjudged the condition of the shoulder to find the tires on the right side of my car sinking into a few inches of mud. It made quite a mess spinning out when I left. It's not the first time I've misjudged a shoulder and regretted it.
I was a bit surprised when I rolled down Interstate 70 some distance from Hays and spotted a very large wind turbine farm, one of the most extensive I had seen. I didn't remember seeing a single wind turbine there on the September trip, and though sometimes I can be unobservant, I did recall billboards protesting the plan to set them up. It was quite a complex to have been implemented in such a short time. However, since they're bought prefabricated and then erected on site -- the big turbine blades make for an interesting tractor-trailer load -- it likely didn't take too long to set them up after laying the foundations and the ground electrical / communications infrastructure.
I dropped by the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure near Salinas again. It was a low-priority item, but my travel schedule that day wasn't too demanding, and I wanted to see if I could get pix of their aardvarks. No such luck; they weren't even in their enclosure. I did get a few interesting shots, one of a gray wolf that honestly seemed as interested in me, in a friendly doglike way, as I was in it; as well as a very nice set of shots of maned wolves, which are gangly Latin American canids, neatly described as "oversized red foxes on stilts". They're not actually closely related to the canids we more generally recognize as wolves. I was a bit surprised I hadn't heard of them before. I also checked out the natural history museum that was part of the site. As such things go, it was not bad, with nice dioramas of stuffed animals, but I've never been able to get enthusiastic about stuffed animals. They look dead and dusty; nice elegant statues would be much more satisfactory.
I passed through Fort Riley and then drove through Kansas City late in the day. When I'd gone through in the fall, I'd had something of a confusing transit, and it wasn't until I planned things out from a road atlas this time around that I realized just how confused I had been. I had been trying to stay on Interstate 70 through the city; I didn't realize that in the very heart of the city, I-70 turns into a short connecting freeway, I-670, which quickly turns back into I-70 again. There's a dogleg freeway north of I-670 that takes on the I-70 designation, and I'd tried to stay on it, when all I had to do was keep on straight on I-670.
I got to my night stop in Boonville, Missouri, and crashed out. I had to clean the worst of the mud off the side of my car before I racked out, which kept me up a bit late. Oddly I don't recall a single detail of the motel. What makes this more odd is after I'd similarly crashed at Columbia, farther down the road, in September, I couldn't recall a detail of that stop, either. In both cases, I could remember all the other motels I stayed at. All I can really recall about I-70 through Missouri was the stream of billboards for adult entertainment stores. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- WASTES & RECYCLING (2): The ultimate destination of most municipal solid waste is the landfill. Don't call it a "dump" -- to sanitation workers, a dump is just that, a place where somebody's just dumped their refuse and forgotten about it. A landfill is a considerably more sophisticated operation.
A modern landfill is a pit that's lined to collect the toxic "leachate" out of the refuse and prevent it from contaminating ground water. At the bottom is a layer of clay, but that's mainly a substrate: the primary barrier to the leachate is a heavy waterproof fabric or plastic known as "ego-textile", carefully laid down in strips about 6 meters (20 feet) across and sewn or heat-sealed together. A layer of gravel is laid above the ego-textile through which the leachate circulates; perforated pipes are run through the gravel layer so a sump pump can draw the leachate out.
What's done with the leachate? One faction thinks it should be recirculated through the refuse in the pit to encourage decomposition, but the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dislikes this idea and so it is usually pumped to a local sewage-treatment plant, or possibly a small treatment plant on the landfill site itself. The problem is that refuse is often contaminated with nasty stuff like paint, insecticides, and used motor oil; the rules say that clients have to segregate such materials, but they don't always do so, and enforcing the issue is difficult.
Every day, after the refuse is dumped, dirt is bulldozed over the top of it to partly seal it away. Arranging to have enough dirt set aside to keep up with the demand is one of the tricky issues in setting up a landfill. The pit is not actually filled up in layers from the bottom, however; instead, the refuse is dumped at a particular place on the side of the landfill, called the "active face", resulting in sloped layers built up gradually across the pit.
Once the landfill is full, it's closed off. In some cases the decaying refuse can generate enough methane to be an explosive hazard, so a network of pipes draws it off. It is usually flared to get rid of it -- in modern times, with worries about emissions, this practice is encouraged because methane is over 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide flaring it produces. In some of the larger landfills, the methane is used to generate electricity.
There was a time when closed landfills were opened to development, with houses and buildings set up on them, but this is more politically troublesome notion these days. In modern times, the landfill is left to settle out for a few decades before it is put to any serious use.
* At least before we started worrying about emissions, it seemed to be a better idea to burn refuse than to bury it in landfills, reducing the mass of the material and even obtaining a bit of energy from it. Alas, even without factoring in carbon emissions, "waste to energy (WTE)" is problematic. The big problem is that refuse is a pretty lousy fuel, being completely irregular in its burning properties, and so burning it is troublesome, meaning that the processes to do so are elaborate and expensive. The second is that a WTE plant is at least as unpopular with the neighbors as a landfill.
There are certain classes of very nasty wastes, in particular biomedical or "red bag" wastes, that effectively have to be burned. This is an expensive process because such wastes don't have much fuel value themselves, and the incinerator has to be fired by gas or some other fuel. The US Army has had a particular waste-disposal problem in getting rid of old stockpiles of nerve-gas weapons and the like. Obviously, an incinerator system designed to safely get rid of poison gases is going to be built to a very high and expensive standard.
Of course, that problem almost sounds trivial in comparison to the difficulty of disposing of radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors, a puzzle that nobody's comfortably solved yet. The general idea these days is to convert the waste into glassy bricks and store them in deep mines. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* ANOTHER MONTH: I dropped the "Another Month" entry some time back since it seemed too self-indulgent, but as it turns out there's a place for a bit of personalized fluff and the occasional comment. Besides, it makes for a low-overhead blog entry. Cooking up blog articles five days a week can become something of a grind.
Website readership is ramping up for the moment after being stagnant for the last two years, though my Google Adsense ad revenue isn't keeping pace, in fact it's falling behind. I've also been getting surprisingly positive feedback on site layout; I keep worrying that it looks crude, but readers do tell me they appreciate the simplicity and lack of overhead.
* While I was surfing the web one day, I ran into a reference to a book titled "HISTORY: FICTION OR SCIENCE? (HFOS)", and on a whim I looked it up. It sounded vaguely lunatic-fringe; I was mostly interested in seeing what lunatic-fringe category it fit into.
It indeed turned out to be lunatic-fringe, but it didn't fit into any category I was familiar with. HFOS is the work of a Russian mathematician named Anatole Foment, and to call it a work of "historical revisionism" would be an understatement. What Foment claims is that there was a conspiracy in the 16th century to cook up records of the past to the extent that all we think we actually know about previous eras is actually a fabrication, that most of what we think of as ancient history -- the Egyptian pharaohs, classical Greek civilization, the Roman Empire -- is actually a retelling of a highly compressed "true history" that took place from about 300 AD, with Jesus Christ being born in AD 1053, the Old Testament being written after the New Testament, and so on.
It is true that history is more about records of the past than the past itself, and that since such records are often biased or inexact, we may have a bogus understanding of past events. However, Foment takes adjusting past history to the extreme of completely recasting it into a format in which Russia, rather than being a medieval backwater, became the source of all culture. Foment supports his revisionist history with extensive analysis of astronomical and other data, though he of course rejects carbon dating and other modern techniques that provide evidence contradicting his. He has offered a $10,000 USD prize to anyone who can prove an artifact is actually older than the 11th century -- though to no surprise, the proof can't involve any technique that he regards as suspect.
Foment is apparently popular in Russia for his rewrite of world history into a Russian-centered mold. However, even Russian historians regard his work as silly nonsense for the credulous. Master chess player Garry Kasparov is a believer in Fomentation's work -- leading to curiosity as to why mathematicians and chess players seem so inclined to go off the deep end.
* People have accused Foment of running a scam, but it's hard to believe anybody who wasn't sincere would go through the effort of putting together a seven-volume work of balderdash history. If people are trying to pull a straight scam, they usually come up with something more believable and don't pump an obsessive amount of work into it. It is sometimes impressive just how methodical and thorough people can be in pursuit of completely crazy ideas.
While poking around on the web, I ran into a comment about "Morton's demon" relative to creationists. I was curious enough to investigate, and it turns out that the concept easily applies to Foment. Morton's demon is analogous to Max well's demon, the imaginary entity that in principle could produce energy for a perpetual-motion machine from ambient heat by admitting energetic molecules into a compartment while closing the door on unenergetic molecules, building up a pressure difference. Morton's demon is similar, guarding the gate to a person's mind, allowing in facts that the person agrees with, but locking out those that aren't so agreeable.
The term was coined a few years back by a Glenn Morton, who had actually been a hardcore young-Earth creationist (YEC), "a card-carrying member of the Institute for Creation Research" as he says, and become disillusioned. It is known that Maxwell's demon can't really get something for nothing even in principle, because the demon provably has to expend more energy than it could produce. As Morton wrote in 2002: "But unlike Max well's demon, Morton's demon doesn't expend any energy -- he gets his victim to expend it for him." After a while, less energy is needed: "The demon drives his victim to go to YEC conventions so that the demon can rest. By making his victim be with those equally afflicted, the demon doesn't have to shut the door or even be watchful." Morton spoke from experience, saying that he had been able to escape from his affliction: "Fortunately, I eventually realized the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn't looking."
Incidentally, it is easy to sympathize with Morton, whose conversion on the road to Damascus was obviously painful, with his work as a geophysicist for the oil industry gradually undermining his creationist ideas. He wrote in 2000 about his rising doubts in the 1980s: "No one could give me a model which allowed me to unite into one cloth what I believed on Sunday and what I was forced to believe by the data Monday through Friday." Once a true believer starts doubting the validity of the true beliefs, the instant hostility of fellow true believers rapidly accelerates the growth of doubts:
When telling one friend of my difficulties with young-earth creationism and geology, he told me that I had obviously been brain-washed by my geology professors. When I told him that I had never taken a geology course [Morton's degree was in physics], he then said I must be saying this in order to hold my job. Never would he consider that I might really believe the data. Since then this type of treatment has become expected from young-earthen. I have been called nearly everything under the Sun but they don't deal with the data I present to them.
Morton also found other creationists working in geology for the oil industry suffering similar "crises of faith". In the end, though he toyed with atheism, he did retain his Christian beliefs; his website makes for appealing reading. It's certainly more pleasant and informative than trying to follow the confused and confusing writings of Anatole Foment.BACK_TO_TOP