jun 2008 / last mod jul 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: Yellowstone menace, Florida road trip revisited, computer-aided fashion, free-standing water turbines, Naxalite rebels in India, VOIP eavesdropping, racial genomics, Monsanto on a roll with GM crops, Bluetooth surveyed, Renault-Nissan plans for electric cars, network distributed supercomputing, rising oil prices, and new ideas for saving forests.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2008: In late June, Zimbabwean opposition party leader Morgan Tsvangirai proclaimed he would drop out of presidential elections, because the violence being inflicted on his supporters by President Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party had rendered the exercise a murderous joke. Tsvangirai was forced to find refuge in the Dutch embassy in fear of his life. The violence by the ruling party was widely denounced by other African states. A very frail but still dignified Nelson Mandela, in the UK on the occasion of his 90th birthday, made a very short but unambiguous statement about the "tragic failure of leadership in Zimbabwe"; Mugabe shrugged off the remark, but coming from one of the greatest Africans it was only slightly less authoritative than a reprimand from God, and it certainly amounted to an encouragement to African leaders to speak up as well.

There was a certain black humor in the Zimbabwean government's insistence on having an election, while doing everything possible to show it was a farce. It was reminiscent of a WIZARD OF ID comic I saw long ago, in which the king of the kingdom of ID, a sawed-off tyrant, was showing one of his nobles his new voting machine -- a contraption on a table with two levers and a structure hidden by a curtain above the levers. The king says: "If you pull this lever, you vote for me."

The noble says: "And if you pull the other lever?"

The king pulls back the curtain to reveal a little guillotine. "Then you still have one hand left to vote for me."

* As oil prices continued to skyrocket in June, with trucker strikes in Spain and Portugal, there was considerable outcry about the way speculation has been supporting the boom. However, as BUSINESS WEEK reported, there is no indication that anyone is trying to corner the market or deliberately push up prices. With a weak dollar, investors all across the board are, perfectly legally, investing in oil commodities, and given a tautly-stretched resource, more money thrown at oil drives up the price. It's Economics 101, though the same education suggests that pumping up a price bubble that's likely to pop sooner or later doesn't represent sound investment policy.

Also according to BUSINESS WEEK, the Saudis are somewhat surprisingly not at all happy about the rapid rise in prices. Even at $100 USD a barrel, they're making money in torrents; much higher prices run the risk of driving the global economy onto the rocks, which will do them no good. They are trying to ramp up production and certainly have the funds to do so, but in a further irony the Saudis insist there are limits to how much they could ramp up production and not exceed the capacity of the market -- in simpler terms, if they pumped too much more, nobody would buy it. Having more oil on the market should in principle damp out the hysterical price rise, but given the complicated politics and economics of oil, it's hard to figure out exactly what might happen next.

* A survey in THE ECONOMIST gave a mixed report on Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Violence has been on a steady ramp-up and the forces committed by the US and Western European nations have not been able to put down the insurgency, but on the positive side the Afghan Army is now 50,000 strong and is expected to grow to 80,000 by 2010.

The Afghan Army isn't an indifferent mob of conscripts, either: the citizenry give it more respect than any other civil organization, and Afghans are tough, skilled, enthusiastic fighters. Western military advisers say the only major problem with the soldiers is that they are very eager to get "up close and personal" with insurgents and are reluctant to fall back so air support can take down the Black Hats in a more efficient fashion. Afghan police, long regarded as corrupt and shiftless, are being retrained and becoming bolder. Still, Afghanistan is a big country, and even 80,000 troops won't be enough to maintain order all over.

The Americans militarily control the east of the country, on the border with Pakistan, and feel things are going well there. In towns once controlled by the Taliban but now under Afghan security, US military Hummer trucks will stop at streetlights, something that would have been suicidal a few years ago. The Americans believe they can continue to pass more authority off to the Afghans and continue to reduce the first-line presence of US troops, providing backup and air support as required by the Afghans.

Things do not look at all so promising in the south, where the Taliban remains active, poppy farming is the norm, and the troops are a patchwork of NATO forces. The NATO effort is faltering, and the Americans seem to be increasingly inclined to back it up. There are proposals to put the NATO force under direct US command; of course that might come across as high-handed, but the current scheme, involving a patchwork of different command structures that rotate in and out of the country on a six-month basis, is just plain unworkable.

The British are irritated by the American desire to take over the driver's seat, all the more so because the UK has lost over a hundred men in the fight so far; the implication that the British are not doing enough stings. British officers, however, admit the Americans are becoming surprisingly skilled at the painfully difficult art of fighting an insurgency. The main lesson that everyone has learned -- all over again, since it's not news -- that simply racking up body counts on insurgents is incompetent and contemptible, not the index of or road to military success. The prime goal of military operations is control, violence being only an unfortunate means to that end, and that means protecting the people, smoothing out frictions, and bracing up the Afghan government.

This is war, of course, and it has ends where violence is the appropriate means. The Americans have become very good at pinning down the locations of enemy leaders with sophisticated intelligence gathering and then nailing them with precision strikes -- often with guided munitions unleashed by drone aircraft flying high and out of sight, with the targets having no clue of being under attack until it's all over. The US is fielding more and better drones and developing smaller precision-guided munitions, such as a 45 kilogram (100 pound) laser-guided bomb appropriately named "Scalpel", to allow the drones to carry more munitions and reduce civilian casualties.

High tech is by no means the only advantage the Americans possess. They not only have more troops in the theater than anyone else, they also have the most money, and they have been flexible in its use. The brass "in country" have a big slush fund, the "Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP)" that can be used as they see fit -- to rebuild mosques, distribute copies of the Koran, finance radio stations to counter insurgent propaganda, provide food aid and blankets, and so on. One big focus of CERP has been to build roads, to allow villagers to move their produce to market and reach hospitals for medical care; provide mobility to Afghan troops; and also provide employment for locals. The Taliban was paying $5 USD a day for fighters in one locale; the Americans countered by hiring road workers for $5.50 USD a day.

American officers are proud of CERP, and many British officers are envious. Not so British government officials, who see it as a "band-aid" approach and prone to boondoggles. The Americans admit there have been fumbles, but say CERP programs are generally effective, and in fact are increasingly performed in line with regional and central government planning efforts.

In addition, the Americans are trying very hard to get a handle on the bewildering and long-standing rivalries between tribal groups, in hopes of getting down to underlying causes of conflict, and believe they are having some success. Overall, the Americans feel they are fighting a real war and are working coherently to win it; the British have seemed more generally inclined to see Afghanistan as a temporary commitment, an optional operation. However, during a recent visit to the UK by US President George Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown committed to sending more forces to Afghanistan -- the very same day the bodies of five soldiers of the 2nd Para unit, killed in action in Afghanistan, were being unloaded in a sad ceremony from an RAF cargolift aircraft.

The biggest problem, however, is the feebleness of the Afghan government. The government is not very effective and highly corrupt from top to bottom, with opium money being a significant factor in the rot. President Hamid Karzai was once regarded as a good man but a weak leader; now there are doubts about his character. He certainly doesn't have the power to get regional warlords under control, and in an effort to gain support, he has been making more and more concessions to religious conservatives in what some see as a gradual "re-Talibanization" of Afghanistan. The government is the key to a stable Afghanistan. Karzai is up for reelection in 2009 and the Afghan people may throw him out. Western governments also need to hold the Afghan government accountable for what is done with the aid being pumped into the country. However, this part of the puzzle remains the most difficult -- as well as the most critical.

* BBC WORLD Online reports that a trial in Australia for a drug charge had to be dropped after the judge found out a number of the jurors, who seemed to be very busily taking notes, were actually playing with Sudoku puzzles instead. The game was given away when it was noticed some of the jurors were writing vertically instead of horizontally. The jury was dismissed and a retrial is planned. In other DownUnda news, in Wellington, New Zealand, a local man tried to pay off a cashier in a convenience store with 12 grams of marijuana, but failed to notice that an officer of the law was next in line. The man was arrested; not surprisingly, he had been drinking.



* THE YELLOWSTONE MENACE (6): As volcanoes go, the Yellowstone caldera is in the top rank. In 1982, Stephen Self, now of the Open University in the UK, and Christopher Newhall of the US Geological Survey came up with a "Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI)" to characterize the size of volcanic eruption, much like the Richter Scale is used to characterize earthquakes. The scale rates from 0 to 8:

   0 / non-explosive
   1 / gentle
   2 / explosive
   3 / severe
   4 / cataclysmic
   5 / paroxysmal
   6 / colossal
   7 / super colossal
   8 / mega colossal

The VEI is a logarithmic scale. A magnitude 0 volcano, like Mauna Loa, gently erupts on a continuous basis, with visitors able to inspect the process from nearby with relative safety. It's not until it reaches magnitude 5 that the eruptions dump a cubic kilometer of material and create a plume that reaches to the stratosphere -- the famous eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 that buried Pompeii was a magnitude 5 volcano, as was the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington state.

The Mount Saint Helens eruption killed 57 people and was the rated by the US Geological Survey as greatest volcanic disaster in the history of the United States, but by geological standards it was middling. The higher levels each increase the amount of material by a factor of ten, with the famous 1883 eruption of Krakatau reaching magnitude 6; it killed tens of thousands of people. The less famous but much more devastating eruption of Tamboura in 1815 reached magnitude 7, causing even greater destruction and resulting in the "year without a summer".

The Yellowstone eruption of 2.1 million years ago was magnitude 8.7; it was the fourth biggest eruption the geologists know about. The biggest was Toba, magnitude 8.8, which occurred 74,000 years ago. One of the interesting things about human biology is that humans are an unusually genetically uniform species. This is believed to be due to the fact that at some time in the past, humans went through a "population bottleneck" in which their global numbers were reduced to ten to twenty thousand, putting them on the brink of extinction. The exact date of this population bottleneck event is unclear, but what is known suggests that matching it to the eruption of Toba is not at all implausible.

How often do such "mega colossal" eruptions occur? Estimates place them as occurring about once every 100,000 years. When will the next one be? Nobody knows. Geologists keep close watch on Yellowstone's activities, and generally believe that if it was starting to work towards another "big bang", we'd get plenty of advance warning, with eruptions increasing in numbers and intensity. However, there wouldn't be much we could do about it, other than clear out the local area and set up emergency plans to try to deal with the mass dislocation and global crop failures that would follow. Given past history of the way humans deal with disasters like this, and the fact that no disaster of remotely comparable size has ever occurred in recorded human history, it seems hard to believe that preparations would be adequate.

Sometime before 1600 BC, the Minoan civilization thrived on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean -- but the eruption of the volcano Santorini wiped it out. As the historian Will Durant put it: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice."



* FASHION BY COMPUTER: Computer-aided design and manufacturing is generally associated with the aviation, architecture, and the like, but as reported in an article from CNET News Online ("CAD Software Is The New Black" by Candace Lombardi), it's showing up in the fashion industry as well. To be sure, clothing design and manufacture remains generally a manual process in the high-end clothing business, but the low-cost "off the rack" end of the market is highly automated.

The problem with the fashion industry is that deals with very short product life cycles, about two months or so, and that keeps the manufacturers on a very fast treadmill. Software can help keep up. The two main companies providing software for the fashion industry consist of Gerber Technology, a subsidiary of Connecticut-based Gerber Scientific, and Lectra of Paris. Gerber got into the business through its textile cutting machines, with clients including Gap, Levi's, OshKosh, and Liz Claiborne. Lectra's clients include Calvin Klein, Dior, Eddie Bauer, and Gucci.

The two companies provide software for design, 3D prototyping, pattern making, size grading, layout of pattern pieces to optimize use of materials, and programming of automated textile-cutting machines. The software allows a design house to farm out production to a manufacturing subcontractor anywhere in the world, since it provides accurate specifications on how to put the clothing together. Packages range from about $3,000 USD to $20,000 USD depending on the client's needs.

The software not only makes it easier to make clothing, it also allows a manufacturer to show potential buyers what clothing will look like even before a single piece of cloth is cut. That presentation function has also been extended into marketing -- Lectra recently released "Kaledo 3D Trend" for the PC, which allows designers to create 3D animated storyboards from their designs, featuring virtual models, photos, audio, and video. Lectra simply gives the package away as a promotional tool.

The emergence of virtual worlds like Second Life is providing a new venue for fashion software design: clothes for virtual world avatars. Lectra is very interested in this new frontier, both as an end in itself and for its linkages to clothing design and production in the real world.



* FREE-STANDING TURBINES: Even in the era of carbon consciousness, dams are one source of renewable energy that don't get much respect. While the hydropower they produce is "green", they displace local populations, clog up rivers, and block the movement of fish.

A hydropower dam provides a housing for power turbines and a "head" of water pressure to drive the turbines. However, what if it were possible to simply put a turbine in river and let it turn from the current? No dam would be necessary. In fact, as reported in THE ECONOMIST, such "free-standing turbines" are now coming into use.

The idea would seem to be obvious, which leads to the question of why it isn't already commonplace. Free-standing turbines have a number of limitations: they aren't as efficient as turbines in dams. they're prone to more wear and tear, they can be hard to get to for repair and maintenance, and their electrical generators have to be protected from the water. Fortunately, computer modeling is helping design more efficient free-standing turbines, with the models directly translatable into hardware by computer-aided manufacturing.

Several designs are on offer for free-standing turbines. One of the first was developed by Alexander Gorlov, a Russian civil engineer who worked on the famous Aswan High Dam in Egypt. He later emigrated to the USA, where the US Department of Energy gave him a grant to help develop the "Gorlov helical turbine". It features a vertical helical structure that makes it stable and able to handle currents from any direction. It is relatively efficient, about 35%, and its vertical arrangement allows the electrical generator to be placed on top, out of the water. A US firm named Lucid Energy Technologies is commercializing the design, with pilot projects underway in South Korea and North America.

A second design has been developed by Philippe Vauthier, originally a Swiss jeweler who emigrated to the USA and founded a company named UEK. His turbines are horizontal, mounted on submerged platforms and able to pivot with shifting currents. They're easy to install and maintain, and are currently being used in remote regions of some developing countries.

An Irish company named OpenHydro has an interesting design in which the electric generator is integrated into the turbine. An electric generator, in simple terms, consists of a set of magnets spinning inside a coil; in the OpenHydro turbine, the magnets are at the end of the turbine arms and the coil is inside the housing. The turbine has a large gap in the center to allow aquatic life to pass and doesn't need lubrication, simplifying maintenance.

Free-standing turbines are now starting to take off. Pilot projects are underway, the most high profile being a system set up in New York City's East River, and investment has risen from $13 million USD in 2004 to $156 million in 2007. Free-standing turbines will not solve the energy crisis, but they can do their bit, and companies can make profits from them. What more do we demand?

* THE ECONOMIST later ran an article on offshore wind turbines, which pointed out that winds tend to be substantially stronger out at sea, due to the lack of obstructions, but that only a few hundred offshore wind turbines have been built. Partly the problem is that planting them on the sea bed increases their cost by about 50%, but the real difficulty is that citizens tend to complain about the prospect of seeing their ocean vistas cluttered up with wind turbines.

floating wind turbine

However, what if wind turbines were designed to float and placed well out to sea, over the horizon? Deep-water oil-drilling platforms are sometimes built as free-floating units, so it's by no means an impractical idea, though it's a challenge to build something that could survive the kind of massive pounding of the open seas. Paul Sclavounos, a marine engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is developing a floating turbine for the windy North Sea, using funding by ConocoPhillips. Companies in Norway and the Netherlands are also working on open-ocean turbines; Sclavounos believes the technology should be ready for prime time in about five years.



* THE NAXALITE UPRISING: India is generally seen as an emerging economic power in the West, focused on high tech and big business. As reported in BUSINESS WEEK ("In India, Death To Global Business" by Manjeet Kripalani, 19 May 2008), the shiny New Electric India tends to obscure an undercurrent of unrest.

On the night of 24 April 2008, several hundred armed citizens fell on an iron ore processing plant owned by Indian metals giant Essar Steel. By the time they withdrew back into the darkness, all the equipment in the plant had been trashed or put to the torch. The attack was the work of the "Naxalites", a Maoist guerrilla organization, founded in the Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967.

For the time being, the Naxalites are a rural movement, operating in back-of-beyond areas in eastern and central India, seemingly not much threat to thriving urban centers like Mumbai and Bangalooru. However, the Naxalites have done plenty of damage to mining and steel companies operating in India, and they're growing in strength. The Naxalites only operated in 9% of India in 2002; today they are active in 30% of the country, with almost 1,400 Indians killed in Naxalite violence in 2007. They're estimated to have a properly equipped military force consisting of 12,000 troops, backed up by a larger body of sympathizers.

Red flag over India

The Naxalite movement draws most of its strength from rural "tribal" groups. India historically suffered repeated waves of invasions from the north of different ethnic groups; the tribals are the oldest surviving group, having been pushed to the margins by the later arrivals. They're nature worshipers, outside of the Indian cultural mainstream; as a rule they are very poor, nobody has ever paid much mind to their distress, and they are highly receptive to the Naxalite message.

As Indian development ramps up, India needs to mine more coal and iron ore. Such resources are generally found in tribal areas, and the trend has been to simply brush the tribals out of the way. Under Naxal leadership, now they're fighting back, ruthlessly. Villagers who seem too cooperative with the outsiders are intimidated, sometimes gruesomely murdered, and the Naxalites haven't hesitated to assassinate business or government officials. Of course, the Naxalites wouldn't thrive if all they had to offer was violence, and they have made many friends among the poor tribals by providing education, medical services, and making it clear to employers who exploit tribal workers that business practices are going to improve -- or else.

Observers of the Naxalite movement believe the insurgents are now setting up underground cells in India's urban slums. So far, Indian national and state government has failed to take the threat very seriously, doing little to help the tribals and regarding the insurgents as simply bandits who can be taken care of by local police. Some states are now finding themselves increasingly outmatched, and in some cases have resorted to backing vigilante groups. To absolutely no surprise, the vigilantes have ended up with a reputation for being not much better than bandits themselves, doing what they please and accountable to nobody. The general belief among those who follow the activities of the Naxalite movement is that things are going to get worse, far worse, before they get better.



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (9): I was at Disney Animal Kingdom by midday on Tuesday, 8 April. I wanted to catch some of the thrill rides I had missed by being sick in September and get some more animal shots as well. As it turned out, the place was packed, the lines were very long. I wanted to try out the PRIMEVAL WHIRL "wild mouse" coaster, but I couldn't take the wait -- and so I decided to use the "FastPass" scheme. This is a trick Disney provides to give a visitor a "chit" to come back at an appointed timeframe and get in a fast line. It's a neat idea, but it's subject to various restrictions -- a visitor can only have one "active" FastPass reservation at a time, and it seems that when demand on an attraction simply gets too overwhelming, they shut it off.

Anyway, I went to visit the African forest trail and get some shots, then came back to ride PRIMEVAL WHIRL. It was still a fair wait in the FastPass line and pretty warm. I got to chatting with one of the staff, an older guy who looked like a "floor manager" type, who told me: "I like your shirt. Wanna trade?" I tend to wear Hawaiian shirts and the like when I'm playing tourist, might as well look the part, but I'm careful not to buy one that's too loud. Unfortunately, I hadn't washed it before I left Loveland, and the mix of sweat and new-shirt smell is downright nasty. I replied: "It's a bit sweaty, I'm afraid."

"That's OK, I'm sweaty myself." Anyway, I finally got to the front of the line and shared a coaster car with a mom and her little daughter. There was a bar on the far end of the coaster car and I stretched my arms across to brace myself; the little girl reached out her arms, which didn't go halfway, and giggled at me. Her mom did the same and giggled too -- what can I say, I'm built like a beanpole. That kind of set the tone for the run, which consisted of sliding slowly down hairpin back-and-forth turns, stopping and spinning around. All three of us were laughing wildly, and when I was over I had to tell them: "That was FUN!"

Disney Primeval Whirl coaster

I did another run, back to the Asia trail, to get shots while I did a FastPass wait to get into the DINOSAURS ride. The place was just too crowded, I knew I couldn't stay much longer -- though when I was trying to get through the crowds back to the ride, I ran into some performers doing an African-type routine. That didn't really catch my attention, until I glanced up and there was a pretty black girl in a suit made of ivy leaves and walking on stilts. She took me a bit by surprise, but I got a good shot -- she smiled for the camera. Her getup was a bit creepy, reminded me of a DOCTOR WHO alien. I also spotted a cardinal again -- what was it doing in this packed madhouse? -- but I still didn't get a good shot.

Anyway, I rode DINOSAURS, it being nothing much, a funhouse ride past threatening robot dinosaurs. The lobby had a number of fossils that made more of an impression on me. Once I was done I left immediately, enough is enough, my mission was to go out the gate and not ever go back to Disney or for that matter any other theme park again. I'm not complaining, the only reason I went back there on this trip was to tie up loose ends from the first trip, and be done with it for good -- but it was still not all that satisfying. Fortunately, the day was about to get much more interesting.

* I got out about 3:00 PM, with the formal item on the list being the Cirque du Soleil LA NOUBA performance at Downtown Disney at 6:00 PM. I figured I'd take a helicopter tour to fill the gap and went into Kissimmee to check it out.

I dropped into the tour office in Kissimmee and found that one person trying to get a ride was problematic. However, the manager, a resourceful Cubano fellow, managed to squeeze me in with a family group. We took off in a red Bell Jetranger and cruised out towards the Disney complex. Fortunately I was in the front seat and had a great camera view through the cockpit forward glazing.

Swan-Dolphin Hotel complex

It was a spectacular view in fact, and I was snapping away as fast as I could as we cruised over the public hotel complex in the northeast, over Downtown Disney, past Epcot and Hollywood Disney, over the Pop Century resorts and the sports complex, getting a bird's eye view of all the hotels I could only drive past unseen on the ground. The ride was brief, but it was exhilarating, and even at $54 USD well worth the time, all the more so because most of the shots I took came out very well, despite the fact that I was shooting through plexiglas. Besides, I'd never ridden in a helicopter before, despite my three years in the Army. I was done in plenty of time to go over to Downtown Disney and catch LA NOUBA. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE YELLOWSTONE MENACE (5): Although Wegener's theory of continental drift had encountered resistance for decades, once the primary objections to the idea were resolved, geologists eagerly accepted plate tectonics, since it explained so much in a very tidy way. The subduction zones were associated with volcanoes and earthquakes; collisions between continental plates drove up mountain ranges.

A concept particularly relevant to the geology of Yellowstone was introduced by Canadian geologist J. Tuzo Wilson in a 1963 paper, in which he showed how plate tectonics explained the emergence of island chains like the Hawaiian Islands. What he proposed was that there was a "hot spot" in the molten mantle that would punch through the Earth's crust on occasions and produce a volcano on the seafloor, which if it grew big enough would emerge from above the water as an island. The hot spot would go quiet for a while as the seafloor shifted slowly above it through continental drift; when the hot spot grew active again, it would throw up another island. The dates of volcanic rocks in the Hawaiian Island chain were progressive, validating the theory. The same phenomenon was observed in other island chains, such as the Galapagos and the Azores.

* In 1965, a geologist named Robert L. Christiansen, working out of the Denver office of the US Geological Survey, was assigned to help categorize the volcanic rocks in Yellowstone. Of course, there was already plenty of data available on the detailed geology of the park -- as mentioned earlier, there had been geological surveys of the area from before it was established as a park, and these surveys had proven very informative. One survey, published by geologist Francis Boyd in 1961, described the park as containing enormous amounts of volcanic rock, realizing that it was the site of a truly massive eruption. What Christiansen and his colleague Robert Blank added to the body of knowledge was that there had been more than one eruption.

The oldest eruption in that area occurred about 2.1 million years ago; it produced 2,500 cubic kilometers (600 cubic miles) of material within "hours or days", forming a volcanic basin or "caldera" up to 95 kilometers (60 miles) wide and burying the plains of Nebraska and Iowa in ashfalls meters thick. It was followed by a second eruption 1.3 million years ago that produced about a tenth of the material of the first -- still making it far bigger than any eruption ever recorded by humans -- and then an eruption 640,000 years ago that was about 40% as big as the first.

Each eruption was the result of a buildup of magma in a chamber that pushed up the earth, resulting in occasional small eruptions until the entire edge of the chamber fractured, with the pressurized gases below explosively erupting to the surface. The explosive power was like setting off hundreds of nuclear weapons continuously for hours or days. Further investigation revealed a pattern much like that seen in the creation of the Hawaiian Islands, though much more violent. There was actually a series of caldera remnants trailing southwest from Yellowstone through southern Idaho state and into the edges of Oregon and Nevada. Under the continental plate there was a hot spot that erupted periodically through the surface of the Earth, resulting in the huge explosions whose remnants were found in Yellowstone. There was evidence for 142 such explosions from a bit over 16 million years ago. Incidentally, the hot spot is continuing to move northeast, or more correctly the continental plate is moving southwest: Billings, Montana, will eventually be directly over the hot spot.

* The effects of these explosions were catastrophic to the wildlife of the region. In the summer of 1971, a paleontologist named Mike Voorhies from the University of Georgia was back in his home state of Nebraska, working on a fascinating dig in the central northwest region of the state on a corn farm owned by a fellow named Melvin Colson. Voorhies uncovered some interesting finds in a layer of volcanic ash, but when the summer ended, he had to go back to Georgia.

Georgia was a lonely place for a vertebrate paleontologist -- locals didn't much care for anything that smelled like evolutionary science, and Voorhies claimed he was the only vertebrate paleontologist in the state at the time -- but in 1975 he got a job at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which was coincidentally only a few hours' drive southeast of the Colson farm. In 1977 he went back there with his students to do a thorough job of it. What they discovered was astonishing -- a graveyard of hundreds of fossil skeletons -- camels, one-toed horses, three-toed horses, rhinos, sabre-toothed deer, and a number of other animals.

There had been a watering hole there 12 million years ago, when one of the eruptions took place in what is now southern Idaho. It should be emphasized that is about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the site in northern Nebraska. The ash fell as a cloak over the animals; most didn't die right away, but the ash rendered the grass inedible, polluted the water, and made breathing difficult -- few would live long inhaling tiny glassy particles. Over a period of a few weeks, the animals came to the watering hole to die, being piled up in layers, the smallest on the bottom since they were the quickest to die. Their remains were then covered by drifting ash, to be uncovered by Voorhies and his students 12 million years later.

How long did it take to repopulate the prairie? Voorhies doesn't know -- Years? Decades? Centuries? By geological standards, even centuries are almost too brief to register. Today the site is open to the public as Ashfall State Park, with many of the unearthed beasts still lying where they fell, covered by a barnlike structure known as the "Rhino Barn".

Rhino Barn at Ashfall State Park

Consider the implications of what would happen today if another such eruption occurred in Yellowstone. Along with the staggering explosive effects in the region surrounding the caldera, the ashfall would cover most of the western United States. Even when it wasn't meters deep, it would destroy all crops, pollute all the waters, make the air deadly to breathe. It wouldn't be easy to evacuate the population, either, since most of the transport would be gummed up by the pervasive glassy ash. The region would be rendered uninhabitable for a generation. Worse, the massive eruption would throw so much material into the atmosphere that there might not be a summer for years. What fraction of the world's population would die of starvation? A tenth? Half? Does the number really make a difference? [TO BE CONTINUED]



* LISTENING IN ON VOIP: The rise of "voice over internet protocol (VOIP)" telephone technology is quickly rendering the classic point-to-point telephone network obsolete. In VOIP, voice is converted into digital data and transferred like any other digital data over the internet. The day of when long-distance calls meant expensive phone rates are clearly ending, posing a challenge to traditional telecom firms.

As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Bugging The Cloud", 8 March 2008), VOIP is also posing a challenge to law enforcement. Establishing a wiretap with a point-to-point telephone conversation isn't all that difficult, but with internet protocol, data is chopped up into packets that can individually go by any route in no particular order, to be reassembled at the end. Tapping into VOIP is like trying to track an agitated cloud of gnats.

In the USA, the rules for what is referred to as "lawful intercept" of communications were established by the 1994 Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). Similar European legislation was introduced the next year, 1995. The regulations imposed rules on traditional telecom firms, requiring them to cooperate with legal wiretap requests. At the time, VOIP was little more than speculation and the legislation didn't consider the issue.

Fast-forward a decade to 2004, when the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Justice decided it was time to move into the digital age, lobbying the Federal Communications Commission -- which oversees the implementation of CALEA -- to extend CALEA to internet service providers (ISPs). Civil liberties groups howled, calling the extension of CALEA too drastic a step to be implemented in such an arbitrary fashion. ISPs howled too, since it was going to be expensive for them to conform to CALEA. However, given the "Global War On Terror", security won out, and ISPs were ordered to be compliant by May 2007. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute, an industry body, is now setting up procedures to permit wiretapping of internet traffic in Europe.

The big gripe of the ISPs over the extension of the laws to permit monitoring of internet traffic is that they have been handed a requirement, but not given any help in implementing it. The laws require the monitoring to be undetectable by the subjects under surveillance, and that is not easy to pull off. Monitoring internet packet traffic imposes a certain delay or "latency" on the delivery of the packets, and that latency can easily be detected by those with the proper equipment. If the wiretap is detected by a subject, the ISP is held legally responsible for blowing cover.

The answer is to have gear in place to monitor all traffic, sharing latency around equally; specific communications can then be monitored in response to a legal order to do so without a subject getting wise. The problem with this is that is means all traffic is vulnerable to intercept, possibly by some "black hat" who has cracked the system. There is also the problem that with broadband internet connections, the amount of traffic can be enormous; law enforcement does not want to have to sort through floods of data, while ISPs don't want to have collect it. Some sort of selectivity is needed, but once again the law is unhelpful on any specifics. Government agencies and service providers have got their heads together to put together standards, but it took time to figure out the details, and many ISPs aren't up to speed yet.

Then there is the problem of encryption. Not all VOIP traffic is encrypted; the popular Vonage VOIP service doesn't encrypt packets. Some do, but they will provide decryption keys if lawfully requested to do so. The real difficulty is with the most popular VOIP service, Skype, with 275 million users. It provides its communications over the public internet, which means from a security standpoint the packets must be encrypted. Worse, from the point of view of the spooks, Skype simply provides the technology for such encrypted VOIP and never handles the traffic itself, meaning Skype doesn't "own" any communications channels to tap. The authorities have been leaning on Skype to put a "back door" into the software, but the company has been holding out. Skype is Europe-based and so for the moment cannot be legally compelled to comply.

So far, intercepted VOIP hasn't been presented as evidence in a court case. Emails are commonly used in court, but they're easy to get, often obtained by confiscation of PC hard disks or corporate backup media -- no intercept needed. In the meantime, an American software engineer named Phil Zimmerman, who developed the popular and highly secure "Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)" encryption package, is working on a secure VOIP system called "Zfone". Zimmerman is an anti-establishment type whose PGP did not endear him to the government. It is unlikely that Zfone will make the authorities any happier with him.

* ED: I have been struggling along with my old 56 KBPS dialup connection for way too long, waiting to get a decent offering out here in the small towns. I had been thinking I would need VOIP, but when Qwest sent me my latest phone bill with fliers for 1.5 MBPS internet service, I started piecing together a new phone-internet plan -- and realized that, given my minimal usage of long distance, the incremental cost of long distance service was so low that VOIP really didn't buy me anything. So I finally came up with a package that allows me to dump the dialup for fast internet without costing me a premium, which is what I had wanted all along. I got the order in, I've still got to put all the hardware pieces together; I'll see how much trouble that causes me.



* RACE & THE GENOME: As reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Human Races Or Human Race?", 9 February 2008), a recent paper published in the journal NATURE GENETICS by Luis Quintana-Murci and his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris provided a comprehensive survey of human racial variation at the genetic level. Scientists who published a paper on such a topic could well expect a lot more trouble than praise, but so far the paper has been well-received. It's actually hard to see much controversial in it; it's been known for a fair amount of time that humans are highly uniform at the genetic level, and it was no surprise that the genetic differences between human races discussed in the paper are minor. Some were responsible for the cosmetic differences between races, such as skin color and hair, while others were connected to diet and resistance to various diseases -- with the variations in the genome fairly well matched to the general local conditions encountered by the different races.

The paper was based on data from a project named "HapMap", which provided a catalog of what are called "single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)". An SNP is a location in the human genome where a single "base" in the DNA varies between genomes. The Pasteur group performed a statistical analysis on the 2.8 million SNPs cataloged in HapMap to date to uncover 55 genes -- out of a total of 25,000 to 30,000 -- that suggested evolutionary adaptation to regional conditions:

The functions of the remaining 30 remained unclear, and the Pasteur group doesn't believe the list is complete. The human genome is big and complicated; research on it has a long way to go before anyone feels we understand it in detail.



* MONSANTO KEEPS ON ROLLING: An article run here late last year discussed the runaway success of agritech giant Monsanto in selling genetically modified (GM) foods. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Next Green Revolution", 23 February 2008), Monsanto and GM food technology continues to go from strength to strength.

Traditionally, Europe has been the center of resistance to GM foods, continuing to set barriers against its use -- even though scientific advisers have given it a green light for safety, and the World Trade Organization has ruled against national import bans on GM foods in the European Union. The resistance seems to be faltering as the economic cost of refusing GM technology is starting to bite. One European farmer's lobby pointed out that the rising cost of animal feed threatens to make European livestock production disastrously uncompetitive. European agricultural ministers, under public pressure, tend to still be holdouts; the European Commission, less directly subject to voter approval, tends to be friendlier to the notion of GM foods and is expected to rule in their favor.

Even without Europe on the GM bandwagon, Monsanto's profits keep going up, and they're expected to keep on doing so for years. The increasing crunch on food prices is placing ever greater pressure on food production, with Monsanto and other GM food producers providing modified strains with improved yield. Some compare the GM food market to the personal computer market in the 1980s, seeing yields and sales continuing to increase for the next two decades.

It's also a little like the PC market in that countries like China are big on product piracy; since GM seed can be used to produce more GM seed, it's not that hard for users to go into business for themselves. However, when one senior industry official was asked if he worried about piracy, he replied: "Yes and no." The nice thing about piracy is that it gets users hooked on the product, and as countries like China get richer, piracy starts biting them as well, making them more willing to play by the rules.

So far, most of the push towards GM foods has been due to enthusiasm on the part of the producers, but now the GM food producers are coming up with strains of food crops that taste better and are healthier to consume. That will make it harder for activists to get the public worried about GM with scare stories about health threats. It was likely inevitable all along that, in the absence of any real disaster, GM foods would gradually wear down resistance and become widely accepted. Europe looks like the final battleground, and the odds are increasing that Monsanto and the other GM food producers are going to win.



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (8): After getting up on the morning of Tuesday, 8 April, I got some breakfast at a McDonald's and then went to the Wal-Mart to pick up a sun visor, as well as a notebook so I could track my expenses. No more fiddling with pocket digital assistants -- they're not as good an idea as I thought.

It was nice to have a Wal-Mart nearby, but otherwise it wasn't a good idea to have stayed in Kissimmee. I had judged that I wasn't going to spend much time in Orlando and Kissimmee was closer to Disney, as well as cheaper. Besides, if I stayed in Kissimmee, the trip would seem less like a repeat of the previous one, and I was mildly curious about Kissimmee anyway. I figured it would be mostly "generica" -- "generic America", with the usual chain motels, restaurants, and stores, not all that different from International Drive, if probably tackier. Well, it was also seedier -- it reminded me of Anaheim, or at least the parts of Anaheim that hadn't been taken over by the big hotels and fixed up. To be sure, the extreme west of the place is pretty nice, but otherwise Kissimmee seems pockmarked by the run-down. A second-rate motel is OK when traveling, since I drop in late, get some sleep, and leave in the morning. However, during an extended stay, seedy lodgings tend to drag the experience down.

The motel was OK, but it wasn't in the best condition, and I never could get the wi-fi connection to work. That was no big deal, I only wanted to check email, and my chats with the hotel manager over the matter were a compensation. She was an efficient, articulate, pretty mixed-race woman who reminded me of Halle Berry. She sounded like she was trying to do more than she had resources to accomplish, and since she was charming I was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. The world is, of course, unjust: the pretty and sexy go to the head of the line, before the rest of us homely folks.

There were some interesting sights there, particularly the really fancy bus stops that the city had set up. However, the city's management of the town seemed a bit loose -- the traffic light poles at the big intersections were in disastrous need of painting. Kudzu vine was taking over in places as well. I got a good shot of a "kudzu monster" formed of trees being overgrown, though I didn't manage to get a shot of a derelict Chinese restaurant that was gradually being absorbed. Kudzu's pretty amazing stuff, if not in a good sort of way.

kudzu monster

* My first stop of the day was the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford, just north of Orlando. Orlando has a reputation for bad traffic, but though I did get bogged down a bit going through town on I-4, it was a shrug -- although it was a weekday and rush hour, it was nothing much, even Denver's worse. Although some online reviews praised the zoo, it was nothing much either, two stars -- not bad as such, but with nothing in particular to distinguish itself, and much too dependent on cages.

They did have a caracal -- a pretty Old World wildcat, brown with exotically tufted ears -- in a cage, a beast that I didn't recall having seen in a zoo before. The cage didn't permit me to get a good shot of it, but it I remembered it because it did take notice of me: it gave me a distinctly nasty hiss. Since the beast's accommodations were not very pleasant, I could understand why it had an attitude problem.

I didn't get many shots overall, though I did get a nice shot of a domestic turkey in the barnyard zoo section. I hadn't really seen one up close since I was a lad, and they are surprisingly impressive beasts, all decked out in their "sexy" finery to impress the ladies -- not up to the elaboration of their relatives the peacocks, but not doing badly for themselves either. I did pick up something that was particularly surprising -- a great blue heron, yet another bird I had been after for a long time. It wasn't even part of the zoo: it was a visitor, wading in the gator pond, looking for a meal. Obviously it did it on a regular basis, since I was very close and it paid me no mind. I've never seen a heron that didn't fly off if I was anywhere near it.

I also spotted another visitor in the trees -- a red cardinal. Cardinals are Southern birds and I had only seen one once, briefly, when I was in the Army and going through training in Georgia. I was downright excited, but cardinals, as often seems to be the case with brightly colored birds, are skittish, and I wasn't able to get a good shot of it. In any case, I didn't stay long in Sanford, going back south to visit Disney Animal Kingdom. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE YELLOWSTONE MENACE (4): Even before Alfred Wegener's death in 1930, work had been done that would eventually vindicate his ideas on continental drift. During the 1920s, a Dutch geophysicist named Felix Vening Meinesz of Delft University in the Netherlands developed a sensitive "gravimeter" that used pendulums operating in an opposed fashion to measure extremely subtle variations in the strength of the Earth's gravity. He performed measurements of the gravity field over the Java Trench in the Pacific ocean from Dutch Navy submarines. The measurements showed that gravity was weaker over the trench.

Meinesz's work attracted attention elsewhere, and an American scientist named William Bowie -- who was performing research for the US Navy -- invited Meinesz to participate in a survey expedition to map out ocean trenches in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Meinesz accepted, accompanying a team of American researchers on the survey vessel BARRACUDA. The survey showed that gravity was weaker over the trenches; Meinesz and one of the American researchers, Harry Hess, suggested that the trenches were caused by downward-flowing currents in the mantle that deformed the crust and locally reduced the strength of gravity. Experiments using a vat of oil with a crust of paraffin on top, with two rollers setting up convection currents, lent some weight to the idea; Hess wrote a paper in which he suggested that the trenches would result from mantle currents moving at a rate of about than a hand's width a year.

The US Navy conducted intensive oceanographic research during World War II, mostly to support submarine and antisubmarine warfare. Hess served as a Navy captain during the conflict, performing detailed field observations that he continued after the war. The seafloor maps obtained from US Navy research confirmed the existence of an undersea mountain range, the "Mid-Atlantic Ridge", which as the name suggests ran right down the middle of the Atlantic. The mountains were geologically active and the seafloor around them was young, compared to the continents. Hess had speculated on the trenches being the product of downward-moving mantle currents; it wasn't a big jump to think of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as the product of upward-moving mantle currents. Hess and his colleague Robert Dietz proposed that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and other oceanic ridges, were sources of "sea-floor spreading", with material from the interior of the Earth moving upward at the ridges and then downward at the trenches.

* This insight provided a mechanism for continental drift, but one more item had to be added to make the case persuasive. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was known that when lava cooled and hardened, magnetic materials in the lava would be "fixed" in position to point to the Earth's poles as they were located at the time. In 1906, a French physicist named Bernard Brunhes showed that the "paleomagnetism" in overlaid flows tended to reverse itself periodically, implying that the Earth's magnetic field "flipped over" every now and then. Further studies confirmed this observation.

During the 1950s, three lines of research did much to turn around attitudes towards continental drift:

Mason's magnetic seafloor maps were published in 1961. They were essentially raw data and most readers didn't understand their significance, but a Canadian geophysicist named Lawrence Morley did -- pointing out in an article submitted to the influential science journal NATURE that they were evidence of the sea-floor spreading proposed by Hess and Dietz. Basaltic magma rose up from the oceanic ridges, pushing out the seafloor, which was then driven back down into the Earth at the "subduction zones" marked by the oceanic trenches. It was known that while some continental rocks could be dated back billions of years, no seafloor rocks were known that were more than 175 million years old. In Morley's view, that wasn't surprising, since the sea-floor was being continuously created and destroyed.

NATURE didn't publish the paper, however, and neither did the JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH. To add to the insult, NATURE then published an article by two researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK, Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews, that made the same argument. In any case, all the evidence was in place to show that continental drift was a reality, it was just a case of arguing out the details. Laser reflectors placed on the Moon by visiting astronauts would actually allow geologists to measure the rate and direction of continental drift, eliminating the last serious traces of doubt.

By the time astronauts were setting up the laser reflectors, the theory of "plate tectonics" had emerged, envisioning an Earth divided into sets of "plates" that moved under the influence of sea-floor spreading. Plate tectonics was a revolution in geology, equivalent to Einstein's theory of relativity in physics or Darwin's theory of evolution in biology. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: THE ECONOMIST recently reported on a particularly startling gadget: home-grown submarines being used to smuggle cocaine from Colombia into the USA. Actually, they're "semi-submersibles", meaning they sink into the water, leaving only a small superstructure exposed, but never fully submerge. They are generally made of fiberglass, are powered by diesel engines, have a range of about 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles), can carry several tonnes of cocaine, and feature a crew of four. They cruise north along the Pacific coasts of the Americas well out to sea, unloading their cargo to powerboats for delivery.

They've been around for about ten years, but they've only come into widespread service recently. Only three were spotted in 2006, now they're being spotted at a rate of about ten a month. They've been difficult to intercept, and it's going to take some time to build up an antisubmarine warfare capability to put a stop to the trade.

* According to BUSINESS WEEK, big companies in the USA have long tried to encourage employees to give up their cars and use mass transit to shuttle between work and home, but it's generally been a marginal activity. With skyrocketing gas prices, employees are much more interested in moving onto alternatives. Safeco, an insurance company based in traffic-clogged Seattle, has been so energetic in subsidizing employee use of mass transit -- even keeping rental cars on hand at the office to allow employees to run errands -- that only 10% of the staff still drive to work themselves.

Microsoft, at Redmond in the Seattle municipal area, has even obtained company buses with cushy seats and wi-fi datalinks, running them on shuttle routes. The program has proven so popular that employees are crying out for more routes. The Microsoft official in charge of the exercise, Chris Owens, says he has seen interest in mass transit rise and fall along with gas prices before, but that things seem different this time: "People are starting to believe this is a long-term situation."

* Also according to BUSINESS WEEK, although Sony and its allies recently won the high-definition (HD) video disk wars with Blu-Ray technology, it hasn't bought them much, since consumers aren't all that excited. The problem goes back to the difficulty that HD broadcast TV ran into in its early politics: while digital video was a huge jump over analog video, HD is not that much of a jump further. Consumers not only need a nice HD TV set to catch the effect of HD video, they also need video productions where it makes a real difference. HD is certainly impressive for a beautiful nature video or flashy special-effects sci-fi flic, but it buys very little for watching, say, a situation comedy or typical anime series. A Blu-Ray player costs an order of magnitude more than a normal DVD player right now, and few are willing to pony up the extra money.

There's also the fear that video downloads will render Blu-Ray obsolete before it has a chance to take off. Efforts are being made towards a marketing blitz to get the public more interested in the technology, while producers are adding more extras to the disks -- video games, for example -- to make them a better buy. [ED: A few years later, it was obvious that HD downloads had rendered Blu-Ray largely superfluous.]



* BLUETOOTH WORKS, MOSTLY: According to an article on BBC WORLD Online ("Testing Bluetooth's Flexibility" by Dan Simmons), the Bluetooth short-range wireless communications scheme is catching on big-time. The Bluetooth system is oriented towards battery-operated devices and typically only has a range of a few meters, though the Bluetooth interface on a laptop PC can reach up to a hundred meters. Maximum practical data transfer rate is a respectable 721 kilobits per second (KBPS). Bluetooth is based on protocol to allow quick and automatic connectivity between a set of devices with Bluetooth interfaces, using procedures referred to as "inquiry" and "inquiry scan". When a device wants to make a hookup over Bluetooth, it sends out an inquiry over one of the channels in the 2.4 gigahertz "industrial, scientific, & medical (ISM)" radio band; Bluetooth-enabled devices in range conduct inquiry scans, checking the frequencies to see if an inquiry is being made, and if so respond with data needed to establish a hookup.

A set of devices then forms up a "piconet" consisting of a "master" device and up to seven active "slave" devices; the network may include more inactive slaves, and a device may also be linked into multiple piconets. The devices in a piconet are synchronized, communicating with data packets sent using a frequency-hopping scheme that jumps over 79 different frequencies at a rate of 1,600 times a second. The hopping provides a degree of security and resistance to interference; the hopping scheme is "smart", adapting itself to avoid frequencies dominated by interference.

Bluetooth can operate in a "synchronous" mode, supporting up to three channels operating at a guaranteed 64 KBPS to support voice data that can't tolerate "dropouts"; or an "asynchronous" mode that can support 426.3 KBPS bidirectionally, or 721 KBPS in one direction and 57.6 KBPS in the other direction.

The most significant use of Bluetooth at present is to link a cellphone to a headset, but uses are expanding rapidly. PCs, laptops, and handheld computers use Bluetooth to transfer files. Attaching a Bluetooth external "dongle" allows a music pod to drive output to an external, Bluetooth-enabled speaker; some of the latest music pods have Bluetooth built in. Sony Ericsson has now introduced a Bluetooth watch that works in conjunction with a cellphone, vibrating when a call's coming in and displaying the name of the caller. Automobile vendors have demonstrated a Bluetooth rear-view mirror that displays the name of a caller, and a Bluetooth-enabled auto sound system that can provide output from a music pod. One particularly interesting application is a Bluetooth-enabled helmet that lets two bikers chat.

Users with Bluetooth-enabled phones and similar gear have a tendency to forget to turn the interface off when they go out in public, which poses a bit of a security threat -- hackers might be able to lift telephone numbers or the like. The industry has responded and provided security upgrades over the past few years. The biggest problem most users have is to get two devices to talk to each other, a procedure known as "pairing".

The Bluetooth specification is under the control of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (BSIG), an industry body. The group is getting ready to roll out a "Bluetooth 2.1" specification this year, which promises to make the pairing process simpler and more convenient. A complementary "near-field" interface, which only works within a range of a few centimeters, will also help automate hookups without compromising security.

Another problem is that, though the Bluetooth interface is standard, not all devices have matching functionality, for example the Sony Ericsson watch only works with Sony Ericsson phones. The BSIG has established a set of symbols to describe device capability: match two devices marked with the same symbols and they should talk. However, not all vendors are planning to use the symbols just yet, and the whole problem of higher-level interoperability still needs some work to hammer out.



* RENAULT-NISSAN GOES ELECTRIC: As mentioned here not long ago, Israeli-born entrepreneur Shai Agassi wants to turn Israel into an electric-car paradise in which drivers sign up for a monthly subscription service that allows them to swap out battery packs at a national network of recharging stations.

As mentioned in the earlier article, Agassi's Silicon Valley-based startup Project Better Place has been working with Renault-Nissan on the automobile part of the equation, and an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Charge!", 10 May 2008) took a look at matters from the Renault-Nissan side. Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan's boss, is a believer in electric cars, publicly announcing that the day of the all-electric car has arrived, and he means it: Nissan is planning to introduce an electric car in the USA in 2010, and by 2012 Renault-Nissan will have a full line of electric vehicles in all markets served by the alliance. Ghosn claims that a reasonable economic analysis shows the electric vehicles will be cheaper on a life-cycle basis than their gasoline-powered equivalents.

Considering the skyrocketing price of gasoline that's not such a surprising statement, but emission regulations are also a big factor. What greatly magnifies these issues is the fact that citizens of emerging economies are eager to get their hands on shiny new cars, just at the time petroleum-based transport is starting to hit the wall. Ghosn believes that only electric transport will be able to cope with much more of the world on wheels. He also believes the technology is there -- for the most part. The only real obstacle is battery technology, and Nissan, as well as giant Nippon Electric Corporation (NEC), are pumping massive investment funds into better batteries. One of the major weak points of electric cars has been range, traditionally limited to 80 kilometers (50 miles) or so using lead-acid batteries, but new lithium-ion batteries promise to push range to 320 kilometers (200 miles). In addition, the latest lithium-ion batteries not only have long cycle lives, meaning they can be recharged many more times than lead-acid batteries without wearing out, they also can be recharged with amazing speed.

The subscription service business model being developed in collaboration with Project Better Place is also an important part of the Renault-Nissan strategy. Israel is committed to the concept and Denmark is jumping on board as well, with networks of recharging stations to be set up in both countries by 2011. Of course, while such a scheme sounds feasible for small countries, it's more of a stretch for big ones like the USA, and when Nissan introduces electric vehicles into the USA in 2012, the company will target fleet operators that can operate their own charging stations. Businesses tend to consider the long-view economics of an investment better than individual consumers, and Nissan believes they have a better bottom line with all-electric cars than the competition, even with a sales tag of $25,000 USD. Nissan is hedging bets by working on hybrid autos, but the company really believes in the all-electric option. So does Ghosn, who says: "We must have zero-emission vehicles. Nothing else will prevent the world from exploding."



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (7): After my quick tour of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT on the morning of Monday, 7 April, I went back to Kissimmee to buy a mini-pizza for lunch, and then went over to Hollywood Disney. I got in the gate and they were having another performance, in the form of the "Disney-Pixar Block Party", with dance performers and characters from the Disney-Pixar animated movies. They did various rave-ups -- I liked their take on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" -- with dancing on the street and on a float with trampolines.

The whole effort was being coordinated by a TOY STORY "plastic soldier" on the top of the float with a lip mike. He really did look like a plastic soldier, with face and hands painted green and clothes made of what looked like green vinyl. It was warm and humid at the time and I had to think that outfit looked hotter than hell; later I got to thinking there must have been a cooling system blowing up from the float, the fact that he never moved from position being a clue. I wondered what Disney did with the street performances when the climate went from "warm and humid" to "hot and suffocating". Under extreme conditions, it would be only too easy for performers to pass out.

I didn't have a really aggressive agenda at Hollywood Disney, either, just wanted to pick up a few attractions I missed. It didn't really amount to much. There was an outdoor song-and-dance performance promoting HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL II that was fun and I got some nice shots of classic cars on display, as well as of the HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS playground, with kids running around a giant super soaker, a discarded film can, a giant ant, and so on.


I hit the TOWER OF TERROR again, not that it really felt worth the bother, and rode the AEROSMITH ROCK-N-ROLLER COASTER, which had been shut down for work on the previous trip. It was supposed to be a 90 minute wait but it was only half as long. It was fun but hardly memorable; there was a time when I really liked roller coasters, but that time has passed.

I left for a while to drive the Disney World site and complete my ground tour -- not really a significant exercise, but it was satisfying to be able to figure out my way around, at least with help of map cues. I went back to Hollywood Disney to catch the evening FANTASMIC show, which was said to be a real event. It was in a bowl theater along one corner of Hollywood Disney and it was a fairly long wait; the place was packed by the time the show was ready to start, and the audience started doing a "human wave", which I never actually seen personally, not being much for attending sports events. The wave went back and forth until everyone got tired out.

The FANTASMIC show was Mickey Mouse, with help from Disney cartoon heroes, versus Disney cartoon villains. It was a dull story for adults, but it was certainly a technical marvel: characters in costumes, huge robot cobras and dragons, ships cruising the lagoon with actors, fireworks, videos displayed on fountains, piling up every trick the Disney production people could think of. I am sure kids liked it and it was definitely impressive, but I was weary and getting cranky, wanting not much more than to get out of the crowd and go get some sleep.

* After the FANTASMIC show, I went back to the hotel, but I couldn't get to bed right away. I had bought a Sharp Wizard pocket organizer to track expenses on the trip; it was a nice piece of gear, but it had been clearly starting to go south during the day. It was kindly enough to let me type out all the records I had made into a file on my laptop before it went completely belly-up and I tossed it in the trash. If it had died right off, I would have had real trouble sorting out my debit card charges when I got back home.

It hadn't been much of a useful day. I hadn't been expecting much and so it certainly met spec, but it also certainly didn't exceed it. I went to bed with sore and blistered feet and a fair sunburn. The sunburn was a bit surprising -- I'd done nothing to protect myself from the sun during the September trip and had no problems. I decided to buy a sun visor the next morning. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE YELLOWSTONE MENACE (3): The revolution in geology that helped explain the nature of Yellowstone traced back to the 17th century, when the first reasonably accurate maps of the world were produced. The British scholar Francis Bacon noticed something funny about the maps: the coastlines of the New World and Old World seemed to nest neatly together. That suggested the continents had once been joined together and then torn apart, but how could solid rock move in such a way? The idea was too preposterous to be taken seriously.

However, in the following centuries geologists began to notice patterns of geological structures and fossil deposits that were hard to explain without assuming that the continents had been joined together in some way in the distant past. In the late 19th century, the Austrian geologist Eduard Seuss suggested that the continents had in fact been joined together, in a "supercontinent" he called "Gondwanaland". Few took the idea very seriously, though an American geologist named Frank Bursey Taylor proposed very much the same idea in a lecture in 1908 and a detailed paper in 1910. Again, few paid him much mind, except for a German meteorologist and Greenland explorer named Alfred Wegener. In his book THE ORIGINS OF THE CONTINENTS AND OCEANS, published in 1915, Wegener piled on all the data that suggested that the continents had in fact been joined together in a "supercontinent" that he named "Pangea", with the modern continents breaking off from Pangea through what he called "continental drift".

Alfred Wegener

Geologists had been trying to invoke vanished land bridges to explain this data, but Wegener showed there was absolutely no evidence for such huge land bridges -- how could they have just disappeared without a trace? He also pointed out that continental drift explained the emergence of mountain ranges. Conventional wisdom of the time suggested they were due to the shrinking of the Earth, but he pointed out that the Earth would be much more uniformly "wrinkled" if that was the case. In contrast, in Wegener's theory of continental drift, mountains would be produced at collision zones between the continental masses that "floated" slowly over the crust of the Earth, like giant rafts.

Some geologists thought Wegener's continental drift theory was an astounding insight, but most thought it was crankish. There was a serious problem with the idea: how could the continents drift around over the solid surface of the Earth? Wegener could only suggest that the drift was cause by the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation and tides, but acknowledged that they didn't seem adequate to do the job. Without a mechanism for continental drift, Wegener couldn't sell his theory. He died in Greenland in 1930 -- it seems of a heart attack, his body found peacefully frozen in his sleeping bag a year later.

Wegener was gone but, as it turned out, not forgotten. Even without a mechanism for continental drift, his theory explained a lot of evidence, and evidence continued to come in to shore up his ideas. Mappings of mountain systems showed they were too large to have been produced by the shrinkage of the Earth; there just wasn't enough crust to produce the mountain ranges in such a way. In addition, by World War II it was generally agreed that the Earth's interior was molten, and during the conflict, an English geologist named Arthur Holmes, best known as a pioneer in the radioactive dating of rocks, suggested that there were "convection currents" circulating in the "mantle" beneath the solid crust that could move around the less dense continental masses. Holmes was careful to call his proposal "purely speculative" and point out it would remain so until supported by specific evidence. For the time being, continental drift remained a hard sell. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* NETWORK DISTRIBUTED SUPERCOMPUTING: As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Spreading The Load", 8 December 2007), the notion of "network distributed supercomputing (NDSC)" -- in which large networks of internet-linked personal computers contribute spare computing time to help tackle computation-intensive problems -- has been around for some time. The pioneer was the famous "SETI@home" effort, begun in 1999, which used an NDSC system to analyze radio astronomy data for possible signals from other civilizations. SETI@home now has three million personal computer "nodes" in its network. It was followed by similar NDSC systems.

The idea has definitely caught on. NDSC is admittedly a limited tool: it is only workable for certain classes of problems in which the nodes in the network can be assigned a task list, told to crunch it out on its own, and then report back the results. One example is brute-force codebreaking, in which each node is handed a list of possible cipher keys and told to check them out, then report if one cracks the cipher. NDSC is completely unworkable if the nodes have to trade data on the results of their calculations at each step; weather simulations and the like have to be performed on specialized supercomputers consisting of networks of processors datalinked closely together.

However, the list of problems for which NDSC does work turns out to be very long, and those interested in the technology are getting help from the "Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC)", which provides open-source software for NDSC projects. BOINC was set up by David Anderson, one of the prime movers behind SETI@home, in 2002, and now over 40 BOINC projects are in operation. IBM Corporation is a big backer, operating a "World Community Grid" with 800,000 nodes that provides computing muscle for university projects such as "Help Conquer Cancer", "Discovering Dengue Drugs", and "AfricaClimate@home".

BOINC isn't just for the big shots, either. In 2005, an 18-year-old Lithuanian business student named Rytis Slatkevicius launched "PrimeGrid", an effort to create a database of prime numbers that has pushed beyond existing databases of primes. Slatkevicius funds the project through banner ads, donations, plus sales of the occasional t-shirt and coffee mug. NDSC also isn't just for PCs. A project known as "Folding@home", run by Vijay Pande and his team at Stanford University, performs analyses of the folding of complicated proteins using a network of Sony Playstation 3 game consoles. Folding@home has 40,000 game consoles in its network, providing a total computing power of 10^15 floating-point operations per second ("petaflops"), constituting one of the most powerful supercomputers on Earth -- when its nodes aren't running Sonic the Hedgehog.

Game consoles actually have advantages over PCs for NDSC. They're built around graphics processor unit (GPU) chips that are optimized for fast floating-point calculations, which it just so happens are what some NDSC applications, protein folding being a good example, are dependent on as well. A GPU can crunch such applications at least 50 times faster than a PC's CPU, in some cases a hundred times faster. Sony was very cooperative in helping Folding@home figure out how to make use of the Cell processor on the Playstation 3 console, and even shipped some consoles with Folding@home software preloaded.

Along with the NDSC networks themselves, online support systems for network volunteers have sprung up, such as the GridRepublic portal. BOINC even operates a help desk using the Skype internet-telephony service. Volunteers have competitions, individually and in teams, to provide the most computing time on a particular project.

* In an interesting irony, volunteers are now providing NDSC computing power with the "meat computer" they carry between their ears. The "Galaxy Zoo" project was begun in June 2007 as a collaboration between astronomers at Oxford University and Portsmouth University in the UK, along with Johns Hopkins University in the USA. The objective was to use volunteers to classify galaxy structures picked up by the Sloane Digital Sky Survey, a project using a wide-field telescope to take high-resolution digital pictures over the sky. Computers can perform galaxy structure classification, but humans can do it much better. In a few months, 100,000 volunteers classified over a million galaxies. Plans are being made to extend the scheme.

There's nothing new about scientists making use of networks of amateurs to perform research; professional astronomers rely on amateurs to spot comets, and ornithologists make good use of "birders" to obtain data on bird migrations and populations. However, in those cases, the amateurs are often very knowledgeable, with years of experience that in some cases the professionals envy. In the case of NDSC-based research, anybody with a PC or networked game console can play, no matter how low their level of skill.

Finding volunteers hasn't been a problem; a few press releases in the right online outlets will generally yield tens of thousands of volunteers through simple word-of-mouth. The Galaxy Zoo project was overwhelmed by the response at first and had to upgrade its servers to keep up with the load. There is the issue of making sure the volunteers do the job right, but that hasn't been much of a problem, either. The Galaxy Zoo system obtains classifications for a particular image from over 30 different volunteers and performs a "majority vote" calculation to get the result; spot checking indicates that a professional astronomer couldn't do a better job. Some of the volunteers will even spot bugs in the system and recommend fixes.

One of the big obstacles is getting researchers to take the idea seriously. The US Stardust probe, which trapped microscopic particles from the "coma" around a comet in a glassy aerogel and returned them to Earth, left researchers with the need to hunt through the haystack of aerogel for the needles of particles. When Andrew Westphal of the University of California at Berkeley first suggested the idea of using an NDSC to perform the hunt, few of his colleagues were enthusiastic about the idea, but after "Stardust@home" went online in August 2006, 24,000 volunteers using a web-based "virtual microscope" performed more than 40 million searches and located 50 candidate dust particles, in some cases spotting faint tracks that would have been easily overlooked even by a professional researcher.

The internet is so vast that it's possible to find plenty of volunteers to support even the most dusty-sounding research efforts. For example, "Herbaria@home", run by Tom Humphrey of the Manchester Museum, effectively makes use of volunteers to document 18th-century plant specimens. A volunteer gets a digital image of a specimen along with the original notes, and then transfers the information into an online database. Herbaria@home has catalogs 12,000 specimens so far, and the plan is to extend the effort into collections at other museums in the UK and elsewhere.

David Anderson has now launched a new open-source effort named "Berkeley Open System for Skill Aggregation (BOSSA)", the objective being to provide tools for "distributed thinking" along the lines of those BOINC provides for distributed computing. BOSSA is already being used on a program under the "Africa@home" NDSC effort in which volunteers will help to extract useful cartographic information -- the locations of villages, fields, roads, wells, and so on -- from satellite imagery covering regions where maps are out of date or nonexistent. Others are starting to consider what can be done with game consoles to support distributed thinking networks. After all, people collectively spend billions of hours a year pouring effort into video games; it is tempting to get a slice of that resource through games that actually accomplish something other than destroying demonic invaders from another dimension.



* OIL ROULETTE: The steadily rising price of oil during this last year has got the world's attention, with the logical question on everyone's mind being: "What next?" According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Oil's Murky Outlook" by Peter Coy, 26 May 2008), the answer is: "Nobody knows."

The current price surge took analysts by surprise, and the range of estimates they're throwing out now gives oil prices going to $70 USD to $500 USD in a few years' time -- which is effectively saying they don't have a clue. The big problem is that making predictions requires information on production, consumption, and inventories, and there is no way to get reliable data on these things. What this means is that oil commodities traders tend to make buying and selling decisions on very weak evidence, causing prices to jump up every time slightly negative news hits the fan.

From the point of view of simple classical economic supply and demand, the high prices should be self-correcting. There's still plenty of oil out there, vast reserves that were too expensive to tap when oil was cheap but which are black gold mines now. Even the most finicky well can pump out oil for $80 USD a barrel, and that's factoring in a hefty profit margin. At more than $100 USD a barrel, oil producers should be frantic to pump more: any producer that stalls in hopes of higher prices runs the risk of being sidelined by competitors who are less patient. However, current production is maxed out, and bringing up new fields can take over a decade.

Some analysts see the bottleneck as getting worse, others see it as mostly an illusion. Nobody really has solid information to back up their views. Statistics are fairly good in wealthy nations like the US, France, the UK, and Japan, but these places are not the critical factors in the equation. In countries that are ramping up oil consumption, such as India and China, the governments don't like to divulge data, or they simply don't know the data themselves. OPEC producers are similarly reluctant to provide information. Until supplies clearly match demand, we can expect the price of oil to continue to be volatile, and likely in an upward direction.

* A following article in the same issue ("The Majors Look West, Again" by Christopher Palmeri) discussed how the five commercial Big Oil companies -- ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips -- are now ramping up their oil exploration efforts in the US and Canada. They had been interested in ramping up North American production about two decades ago, but were sidetracked by the promise of developing huge oil fields in Russia, Africa, and South America. However, Big Oil brass underestimated the political difficulties of working in places like Russia and found out the road they were on wasn't paved with gold. In the meantime, Big Oil neglected investment in favor of profits, while small players invested aggressively in North American fields in hopes of eating Big Oil's lunch.

Now Big Oil is ramping up investment in North America to catch up. It will take some time to gear up new production, and it's hard to say it will do much to ease the oil price crunch -- the five Big Oil firms only produced 11% of the world's oil last year -- and nobody thinks that North American production will ever result in energy independence. However, given how high oil prices are now, any good news is welcome.

* ED: I've got to checking the oil price on Bloomberg.com every day, playing something of a guessing game to see where it will go next. It was hovering between $130 and $125 USD for a while, but at last check it was below $125. Will it go below $120? We'll see. I won't hold my breath to see if it's going below $110, and I'll be a little surprised if it ever goes below $100 again.



* SAVING THE FORESTS: As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Racing To Hug Those Trees", 29 March 2008), the United Nations (UN) recently conducted a meeting to determine the details of a new plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions to follow the current Kyoto Treaty. The meeting of course discussed deforestation, which accounts for about a fifth of greenhouse gas pileup. The new treaty, planned for introduction in 2012, will include incentives for "reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD)". The basic idea is that rich countries will provide support to poorer countries to help preserve their forests, with the rich countries receiving emissions credits for their support.

The problem with implementing REDD in such a treaty is that it requires some formula for linking specific REDD measures to specific emissions credits, and nobody has a really clear idea of how to do that just yet. Some environmental activists and groups aren't planning on waiting for a deal to be hammered out and are working on REDD in the here and now.

One scheme, called "Plan Vivo" funnels money from donors to villagers to Mexico, Mozambique, and Uganda to support local efforts in forestry protection. Outsider inspectors monitor the efforts and Plan Vivo then hands emissions credits back to the donors. The trouble with Plan Vivo is that the UN isn't involved and doesn't recognize the credit scheme, meaning that the credits amount to little but "gold stars" with no value relative to governmental emissions-reduction programs.

That's a big problem, but some working on REDD schemes are going ahead on the basis that programs implemented now may well end up being part of a UN framework in the future. US investment bank Merrill Lynch is working on a REDD plan to support protection of a huge forest in the Indonesian province of Aceh, providing money to help the provincial government keep the forest intact and provide alternative livelihoods for citizens inclined to cut down trees. Merrill Lynch will then sell emissions credits on the voluntary market -- with the long-range plan being to then move the credit system to a UN plan when it become available.

A British organization named Canopy Capital is taking a more speculative but interesting approach, offering to help fund protection of the Iwokrama rain forest in Guyana. In return, Canopy will obtain a share of the rights to "ecosystem services" it provides -- storing carbon, protecting wildlife, and so on. At present time, these rights have no particular value, but the company is betting on current trends that they will in the future.

The Guyanese government is very open to such ideas, President Bharrat Jagdeo saying last year that if the terms were right, Guyana would willingly cede stewardship of the country's entire forest system to outsiders. To an extent, such initiatives are less gambles on the future than attempts to prod slow intergovernmental processes along: many feel that too much is being lost too quickly to want to wait on things to come together on their own.



* ANOTHER MONTH: A quiet month, took my biannual trip to Spokane to visit my family, came back to get the piles to do at home straightened out, with limited success so far. Gas prices continued to climb during the trip and there's little doubt they'll reach $4 USD a gallon soon, and some believe prices will hit $5 before the end of summer. Yes, yes, I know, in Europe it's at least twice that -- 70% petrol taxes do tend to inflate the price a bit -- but on a drive of 1,600 kilometers / 1,000 miles from Colorado to Washington State, four bucks still hurts. It's not a major problem for driving around Loveland, Colorado.

I predict a year from now, after the economy gets back more on track, gas will be back at about the $3 level. I'm writing that down here just to see how close I am to the mark next June. However, I don't think it's going below that level, and as far as I'm concerned, oil can stay above $100 USD a barrel. Consider it a tax to support the development of alternatives. To be sure, not much of that money actually funds alternative energy efforts itself, but $100 USD a barrel gives those working on alternatives a very tempting target to shoot for.

* I was driving to the gym to work out at about 0630 AM one morning, and saw what looked like a small dog walking across a vacant lot on the block where I live. I took a closer look and saw it was a fox. They're perfectly common around here, I've seen them around for years, but this fella was walking around in clear daylight through a residential area as casually as if he owned the place, while cars drove past. Traditionally, if they see someone, they run and hide.

I wondered why the foxes were getting so bold, until I made the connection with rabbits. I live fairly close to the edge of Loveland, and we've been increasingly infested by wild rabbits over the last few years, I generally see them hopping around on neighbors' lawns on morning walks. I was thinking that I'd see more hawks around as the rabbit population boomed, but it appears hawks don't like urban areas, and I didn't think about the foxes. It's no surprise that the foxes are getting casual about human proximity -- if they're hunting rabbits in somebody's front yard, they'd have to be.

I have no problems with the rabbit population being culled. Yeah, they're cute, but at the rate they were proliferating, it seemed likely we were going to be up to our belts in bunnies in a few years. Unlike coyotes, I doubt foxes are any threat to most cats or any but the tiniest dogs.

I got to thinking more about how some animals have thrived in the shadow of human settlement. Big predators like cougars and free-ranging herbivores like bison have taken it in the shorts, but deer, coyotes, raccoons, and it seems foxes find human settlement to their advantage. One could imagine that 10,000 years from now, new species of animals will have evolved that are capable of surviving easily in even the densest urban environments.

* I've always been enthusiastic about USB devices. Those who had struggled to install peripherals before its introduction could only say with honest amazement: "Plug it in and it works!" And now, nobody with the most minimal pretensions to geekdom goes out the door without a USB memory stick -- it would be like leaving part of your brain at home.

Tardis USB hub

As it turns out, few of us realize the true extent of the USB revolution. An Amazon.com poster named "Didier Vulcan Splernakowitz" AKA "Rugby007" AKA "exxxxxxxxtreme geek" corrected this deficiency by raising the humble Amazon product list to something like an art form, or at least a fair amount of fun. His "Livin' Large, Through My USB" list was impressive:

The one at the top of the original list I had to leave for last, the "USB Humping Dog". It's a little plastic dog with a USB connector ... well, never mind where it is ... and it appears that you plug it into a USB socket so it will ... well, never mind what it does. As the list author put it: "For the ultimate in style, taste, class, and sophistication, just a little something to hook up to your $5,000 laptop."

I keep having a vision from my engineering mind's eye of blueprints and manufacturing specs for an item like this, which makes it seem even more bizarre. Not only do people think such things up, they go to considerable effort to produce them.