dec 2008 / last mod aug 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE, new PC adventures, China's global hunt for resources, tasers, smell sensors, Somali pirates, KOMPROMAT.RU, maintaining old tech, cellphones & epidemiology, agritech and Thanksgiving dinner, Obama's challenge with Guantanamo, video surveillance that reads minds, electric trucks.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2008: Late in November, a gang of ten terrorists struck the Indian city of Mumbai, killing about 200 before the terrorists were wiped out by Indian security forces -- only one was captured. The attackers assaulted a number of targets with automatic weapons and grenades, with a clear tendency to single out foreigners, particularly Americans and British, though they indiscriminately fired into a crowd at Mumbai's railroad station.

Late in December, Israel unleashed a blitz on Hamas in Gaza, also killing hundreds. The offensive was in response to Hamas provocations, with the military action tacitly approved by the Bush II Administration. Israel released somewhat morbidly fascinating targeting videos, showing guided bombs being dropped into storage tunnels, with secondary explosions pointed out to show there were munitions stockpiled in them. Particularly fascinating videos were taken from some type of smart missile with a video seeker, showing a "robot's eye view" of flying over a target area, to then dive and end abruptly on impact. Trouble every day.

* Election fever has subsided here in the States, with the news now focusing at a lower level of volume on Barack Obama's selection of a cabinet. Hillary Clinton was tapped for secretary of defense, which will certainly not make Clinton-bashers happy but gave Obama a Lincolnesque touch in his willingness to bring strong rivals into his tent. Some of the Obama camp were not at all happy about the choice of Senator Clinton, since she had become their bugbear during the long struggle for the Democratic nomination, and there are fears that she may be too ambitious to work harmoniously with Obama. Another issue is the potential for embarrassments from Bill Clinton. Another sex scandal isn't expected, though no one is saying it's impossible; the real problem might well be conflicts of interest due to his activist work with the influential Clinton Foundation.

As pointed out by Lexington, THE ECONOMIST's rotating American columnist, the fears seem overblown. Ideologically, there is little to choose from between Clinton and Obama on foreign policy, and the two are both pragmatists. Senator Clinton has made a good name for herself as a powerful member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, even among military brass who weren't keen on the Clinton name during her husband's administration, and Joe Biden lobbied hard for her appointment to the office of secretary of state. With plenty of hot foreign-policy issues to take care of, Obama also has reason to like the idea of a highly visible, high profile secretary of state who is smart, strong willed, and used to traveling the globe. Obama also retained Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense, on the sensible rationale that Gates was doing a good job, and there was no sense in changing top military leadership while the US was engaged in two troublesome wars.

What happens when Obama takes office is another good question. The US is in the grips of one of the worst economic crises the nation has undergone since the Great Depression. Some among the Democrats believe that Obama should not only emulate Abraham Lincoln but also Franklin Delano Roosevelt, implementing a far-reaching "New Deal" immediately. Lexington commented that doesn't really sound like a good idea. The American public is deeply suspicious of overblown government programs, and Obama simply doesn't have a mandate to rock the boat too much. The Democrats owe their current dominance in Washington DC less to their own virtues than to the failings of the Republicans, and being given the driver's seat simply because they don't seem as bad as the other guy is hardly a ringing vote of confidence.

Incidentally, although Gates is being retained as secretary of defense, the Air Force's competition to obtain a new inflight refueling tanker, last discussed here a few months back, is not expected to go forward again until next summer. There has been some talk of splitting the buy between Boeing and EADS / Northrop Grumman, but the Pentagon is pouring cold water on that idea. It might be politically expedient to split the buy, but it would be the worst solution for the military and the taxpayer. It would mean higher unit prices per aircraft, and would mean that the Air Force would have to maintain duplicated support systems to keep the tanker fleet operational. Stay tuned.

* Obama does seem to be facing good luck with Iraq -- he promised to get American troops out, but that seems to be less of an issue because the Iraqi and US governments signed an agreement in mid-November that says all US troops will be out in 2011. The US will not leave permanent bases behind, nor use Iraq to launch attacks on Iran or Syria. Some Iraqi factions wanted the Americans out more quickly, but Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, says that the US has so much equipment in Iraq that it's going to take two or three years to haul it all out anyway.

Lame-duck President George W. Bush went on a "farewell" tour of Iraq and Afghanistan in mid-December, with his visit to Baghdad highlighted by an incident at a press conference in which Muntanda al-Zaidi, an Iraqi reporter, charged up to the podium, shouting protests and then hurling his shoes at the president's head from close range. The incident was caught on video; the president was quick to duck and appeared only slightly ruffled, basically dismissing the incident with "so what?" The reporter was arrested and the Iraqi government formally denounced the assault, though there were street demonstrations in support of the reporter.

Obama's media presence now greatly overshadows that of Bush. THE ECONOMIST's cartoonist ran a cartoon of Obama at a press conference, saying: "I have time for one more question. You in the rear?" It's George W. Bush: "Yes, could I have my podium back?"

The election of Barack Obama took Tehran by surprise. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had said in March that some means would be found to keep Obama out of office even if he won by a landslide. The frightening thing is that Ahmadinejad honestly seems to believe such things.



* TASERS EXAMINED: The taser "stun gun" weapon tends to get bad press, with reports of people being brutalized or even killed by tasers making the rounds in the media. An article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("How A Taser Works" by Mark W. Kroll & Patrick Tchou, December 2007) performed a closeup on the technology.

One particularly notorious incident involving tasers took place at the University of Florida in September 2007 at a lecture by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Campus police descended on a heckler and ordered him out of the auditorium; when he resisted, they "tased" him. The scene was captured on video and made the rounds on YouTube, attracting considerable negative public attention. Victims screaming on videos after being tased are bad enough, but according to Amnesty International, between 2001 and 2005, 150 people worldwide died after being tased. In most cases, medical examiners concluded that the shocks were not the cause of death, but the public remains generally suspicious of the taser.

The Taser X26, made by Taser International of Scottsdale, Arizona, is popular among law enforcement in the US and elsewhere. It fires two barbed electrodes on wires, with a powerful shock sent over the wires that sends the victim into spasms. Although being tased is absolutely no fun, in the vast majority of cases the victim suffers no permanent injury.

Taser X26

According to Taser International, its guns are used hundreds of times a day all over the world. In one high-profile case in October 2007, Czech police rescued a little girl who had been kidnapped by taking down her captors with tasers. Whatever problems there are with tasers, they are certainly preferable to using firearms -- even firing rubber bullets or other "stun" rounds, which can cause serious, sometimes lethal, injuries -- which is why police departments hand over the money for tasers when they cost twice as much as pistols. Tasers now release bits of ID "confetti" when fired, and also log the time and duration of each firing to ensure their usage is monitored. Tasers can be obtained with video camera attachments.

Still, a taser is a weapon and it has to be assessed on that basis. Tasers are not evaluated by the US Food & Drug Administration for safety; as a result, several state and local governments have considered laws regulating them. Police departments typically provide guidelines on the proper use of tasers. Analyses by British and Canadian police research centers and by the US Air Force concluded that tasers are generally effective and do not pose significant health risks.

When the trigger of a taser is pulled, a blast of nitrogen gas launches the two barbed darts at 55 meters (180 feet) per second, less than a fifth of the muzzle velocity of a typical pistol. The darts have a 9 centimeter (about two inch) tip to penetrate clothing and the outer layer of skin. Two very thin wires, up to 9 meters (30 feet) long, trail the darts to provide an electrical circuit back to the gun. Since the barbs may get stuck in clothing, they fail to reach the skin about a third of time, and so the taser generates an initial "arcing pulse" to ionize the air between the tip of the dart and the skin. The arc phase has an open-circuit potential of 50,000 volts, which sounds alarming -- but when we get an arc of a static charge from walking across a rug on a dry day, the voltages are high as well. The total energy in either case is small.

The actual peak voltage delivered by a typical taser to the body is 1,200 volts, delivering 100 microcoulombs of charge in a pulse, with the pulses repeated at a rate of 19 per second. Total energy is about 23 watts. The intensity and timing of the pulses is intended to cause constriction of the skeletal muscles but not the heart muscles, avoiding the risk of driving the victim's heart to go into chaotic fibrillation. The heart is somewhat protected against taser shocks in the first place because the electrical shock is routed through the skeletal muscles and around the heart.

About 670 people die in the US every year while under police restraint. Tasers were used in about 30% of these incidents, but it doesn't follow that the tasers necessarily led to the fatalities -- after all, handcuffs were used in most of these cases, but nobody seriously claims handcuffs are lethal devices. American medical examiners have only cited the taser as the cause of death in four cases so far, and three of them were thrown out of court.

Careful lab experiments with pigs showed that conditions under which taser shocks caused fibrillations were extreme to the point of unrealistic. Since police often have to subdue violent suspects who are on drugs, the pigs were even drugged up with cocaine for part of the tests, which only proved to make them more resistant to fibrillation. The researchers who conducted the tests admitted that the pigs were healthy and so not all that good a model for a human victim with a bad heart.

Even if tasers were entirely safe, there is the fact that tasers leave little scarring or bruising, and there are real concerns that they encourage police brutality. We still have more to learn about the effects of tasers and the rules for their proper use -- but all that considered, few who were given the unpleasant choice between being tasered or shot, or for that matter even worked over with a cop billy club, would have much problem figuring out what choice to make.



* HUNGRY CHINA (3): It is one thing for China to be trading with a developed nation like Australia. Chinese trade with undeveloped nations opens up a somewhat different portfolio of questions. China, for example, is very interested in the Congo, a land of great natural resources that has been all but completely ruined by corruption and war. The cynical point of view sees China as greasing the palms of crooked Congolese politicians and then walking off with the Congo's riches.

A closer examination suggests a somewhat different picture. The Congo is not entirely settled right now, with some ugly fighting in some regions, but it is more settled than it has been in years. Considerable aid has been flowing in, though Congolese officials find it inadequate to fund real development and are frustrated at the bureaucratic strings attached to the aid. There has been some commercial investment by Western firms, but it's been cautious and limited: the rule of law is still tenuous, corruption is deeply rooted, and the infrastructure is in wretched condition.

It is not surprising, then, that the willingness of the Chinese to invest in the country has been greeted enthusiastically by Congolese officials. Some UN development officials working in the Congo have no particular qualms about the Chinese pumping money into the country. The Congolese government has taken pains to reassure Western players in the country that no deals have been made with the Chinese to shut out competition. Congolese officials insist they are not coddling the Chinese, being perfectly willing to give Chinese who have entered the country illegally the boot, and to step on Chinese companies who don't obey regulations.

Although the Chinese have built roads and railways in neighboring Angola using their own contractors and labor, leaving locals without employment, Congolese officials insist they are not going to be taken for a ride, that Chinese development money being pumped into the Congo will not be used to enrich Chinese. Chinese companies currently working in the country do not come across as worse than companies from other countries, and in fact sometimes have a better reputation -- locals say Chinese employers are conscientious about paying their workers on time, while Lebanese and Indian firms have something of a bad reputation for stiffing their employees.

As with Australia, China is really just another player in the host nation's economy. To the extent that the Chinese are different, it is just because they are more energetic and ambitious. The Congolese are happy to have the Chinese there, but not to the point of being particularly subservient: in fact, since Chinese interest raises the bargaining power of the government with other players, it helps Congolese officials maintain an independent attitude. They get bargaining power that allows them to object to schemes imposed on them by Western governments who think they know better than Congolese what's good for the country.

Yes, on the other side of the coin the Congolese government does tend towards the corrupt, but China is not solely responsible for that, and in fact the Chinese have the same incentive as other players to protest at being ripped off by Congolese officials who demand bribes. It is tempting and easy to slip a crooked politician money to get a favor, and of course that's what often happens -- but cooperating in corruption simply encourages it, and over the long run it's just asking to be extorted more and more.

In other nations, as Chinese economic interests increase, so do the efforts of locals to ensure a level economic playing field. As South African President Thabo Mbeki put it: "China cannot just come here and dig for raw materials and then go away and sell us manufactured goods." The result is a degree of protectionism that drives the Chinese to set up local partnerships to manufacture goods instead of simply dumping them on the market.

In fact, the only countries where China is the obvious dominant foreign trading partner are pariah nations ostracized by the West for human-rights abuses -- specifically, the Sudan and Myanmar. This is where the criticism of the Chinese gets more edged, since Chinese economic support helps prop up ugly regimes that almost everybody else wishes would disappear. It is true that the Chinese aren't the only cheaters and that China has been able to exert pressure to obtain a few concessions. However, since China's record on human rights at home isn't all that inspiring itself, the Chinese are not in a very good position to shake a finger at ugly regimes, telling them to mend their ways. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (11): As noted in the last installment, flowers are often adapted to limit access to certain classes of pollinators to ensure that their pollen finds an appropriate mate. None are more specialized in this respect than fig trees. Fig trees are pollinated by wasps, and the mechanism ensures that not only are the wasps strongly specialized to only pollinate fig trees, each fig tree has its own "dedicated" species of wasp. There are about 900 different species of fig tree.

A fig fruit is not like an apple, cherry, or other fruit. It is actually a cluster of flowers, turned outside in. Imagine the evolution of a flowering plant beginning with individual flowers; then clusters of flowers; next a composite flower like that of the sunflower (which is actually an array of small flowers; to finally roll up to an enclosed ball with the array of flowers as the interior lining. The fig fruit is such an enclosed ball. There is a tiny hole at the apex of the fruit, big enough to accommodate the equally tiny wasps or "wasplets" that pollinate fig trees. These wasps are so small they can't be inspected clearly without a magnifier. The wasps have such a close symbiotic relationship with the fig tree that both are entirely dependent on each other.

The wasps interact with the fig tree in a cycle, and it's hard to make sense of what happens without knowing the whole cycle. The only thing to do is start at the beginning, with the birth of the wasps, and see what happens. In the beginning, there are wasp egg capsules at the base of the female flowers inside the fig fruit; they hatch into larva and eat the seed there to grow to their tiny adulthood. The males grow up first. They have no wings and will never leave the fruit. A male searches through the darkness inside the fruit and finds an egg capsule with a female in it -- presumably the capsule has chemical markers to allow him to figure out there's a female inside -- to then chew into the capsule and mate with the female before she is born. That's pretty much the end of the male wasp's job, and he doesn't live long after that. The female hatches, to search through the fruit for male flowers and stock up on their pollen. She actually has specialized pockets on her body to store the pollen, an unusual feature among pollinators. She also has wings.

In some species of wasp, having stocked up on pollen the female simply flies out the hole at the apex of the fruit. In some others, the males have another task before they pass on, to cut a hole through the fruit to allow the female to exit. Either way, she emerges into the light, to seek out a fig tree of the same species that she just left, presumably by smell. She also has to make sure that the fig fruits she finds are ripe, with functional female flowers. Once she's found the proper target, she crawls in through the hole in the fruit at the apex. The fit is tight and her wings, maybe an antenna, usually get torn off. It appears that the hole is small -- and for fig trees where the female wasp makes her own way out, harder to enter than to exit -- to keep out unwanted visitors. Losing her wings is not really a problem to the wasp, since she's not going anywhere else for the rest of her life. Now she gets down to the job of laying eggs and pollinating the fig tree. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Ever-gadgety POPULAR SCIENCE magazine had an close-up of a particular intriguing machine: a single-seat tilt-rotor aircraft, being designed by Simon Scott of Falx Air in the UK. It has a loaded weight of only 550 kilograms (1,200 pounds), with twin 5-blade tilting props, each driven by a 40 kW (55 HP) electric motor. While the aircraft has a lithium-ion battery pack, the batteries are only for temporary takeoff power. The aircraft's electrical power system is driven by a 78 kW (104 HP) internal-combustion engine; a tilt-rotor doesn't have the rotor area of a true helicopter and so it needs more power to take off straight up, and the engine can't do the job without battery help.

The tilt-rotor has a top speed of 435 KPH (270 MPH) and a flight endurance of at least four hours. It has a parachute system to allow it to float to the ground if something goes wrong. It's a very pretty piece of machinery, but it only exists on paper for the time being, with the search for money to perform prototype development still in progress. I wish them luck, I really do, and I'm cheering for them -- but I also am aware that we get a report of some sexy flying gadget for the private pilot about every year or so, and sadly they're rarely heard from again.

* A note in AVIATION WEEK described how a company in the San Francisco Bay Area named Airship Ventures is now operating a Zeppelin for aerial tours of the region. It operates out of Moffett Field, where blimps were flown by the Navy during WW II for coastal patrol.

A zeppelin is not the same as a blimp -- they look similar, but a zeppelin has a rigid frame with flexible gasbags inside of it, while a blimp effectively is a gasbag. Airship Ventures' machine was built by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik of Friedrichshaven in Germany. It is about twice as big as the Goodyear blimp, with a length of 112 meters, a height of 26 meters, and a width of 29 meters (246 x 57 x 64 feet). It can carry twelve passengers and is powered by three Lycoming IO-360 flat-four aircooled piston engines, much like those used on the Cessna 172R light aircraft, providing 150 kW (200 HP) each. An engine is mounted on each side of the airship -- something that wouldn't be possible without its rigid construction -- and at the tail. The engines can swivel upward for vertical takeoffs, while the aft engine also drives an auxiliary rotor for sideways thrust. Two similar machines are in operation elsewhere, one in Germany and one in Japan.

Airship Ventures Zeppelin

* As reported by SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, researchers at Pennsylvania State University has found that a polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) plastic film will cool by up to 12 degrees Celsius when an electric current is removed. "Electrocaloric" substances have been known for a long time, but the cooling effect was minimal in all other materials evaluated to date.

The polymer molecules of the PVDF film line up under an electric field, a process that releases energy and produces heat. Let the film cool to room temperature and then drop the electric field, the molecules become disoriented again, absorbing heat and so cooling. The phenomenon is not all that different than the phase changes that take place when water freezes into ice and then melts again. The changes in structure of previously known electrocaloric materials were too small to obtain much of an effect.

The immediate goal is development of a cooling system for computer processors and the like, with the electrocaloric cooling system potentially requiring a tenth as much energy as fans and other contemporary cooling systems. However, at present the scheme requires an impractical 120 volts DC, and figuring out how to dump the heat obtained when applying the field is proving tricky.



* HUNT BY SMELL: As reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Smelling Bad", 30 August 2008), doctors have long used the sense of smell in diagnosis. The sweet smell of rotten apples on the breath is a sign of diabetes; fishy breath may indicate liver disease. However, humans have a lousy sense of smell, and so there is some interest in developing an artificial nose that can do a better job.

The first person to hint at an artificial nose for medical diagnosis was Nobel-prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, back in the 1970s, when he performed the first serious scientific analysis of human breath, using a technique known as "gas chromatography". In a gas chromatograph, a gaseous sample is passed through a tube, with interactions between the gas and the walls of the tube causing the components of the gas to exit the end of the tube at different times. Pauling was able to separate the human breath into 250 components.

Notice that gas chromatography by itself can't identify the components. That task can be performed by "mass spectroscopy", which sorts molecules by weight; if two molecules have the same weight, they can be broken down into daughter molecules and reanalyzed. Using gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy, researchers have been able to identify over 3,000 substances exhaled, excreted, or exuded from the human body.

Now the challenge is to characterize how changes in this mix can be used to fingerprint disease, and to figure out a way to perform such tests cheaply and reliably. One of the first to take on this task, Carolyn Willis of Amersham Hospital in the UK, decided to take the simplest approach to the task. Dogs tend to have very sensitive noses, and so she trained dogs to sniff out bladder cancer. She is now training them to identify prostate cancer and bladder cancer.

Of course, such a simple approach is limited and inflexible, and dogs will not be an adequate substitute for high tech over the long run. Michelle Gallagher of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pittsburgh has performed a study in which she used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to examine the odors linked to certain types of skin cancer. She demonstrated that the test can work effectively, but the gear is expensive and takes several days to return the results of a sampling.

Boguslaw Buszewski of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, is taking a simpler approach. He has developed special analysis columns the width of a human hair, made of metal and silica, and coated with special polymers that bind to specific components in the breath. Pass a sample through the columns and they will trap the appropriate molecules; the columns can then be flushed into an analytical instrument to see which ones have picked up molecules. The procedure is relatively simple and can be completed in an hour or so. Buszewski is now trying to increase the range of components that can be sampled.

* In related news, THE ECONOMIST report on a sensor developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that detects poison gases in extremely low concentrations, with the sensor able to determine the type of gas so the proper antidote can be used. The sensor is a gas chromatograph, with its output analyzed by transducer elements in the form of carbon nanotubes coated by nitrogenous compounds known as amines.

An electric current is run through the nanotubes; chemicals in the output of the tube will bond to the amines on the surface of the nanotubes for a time, with the intensity and duration of the bonding varying with the chemical and correspondingly changing the amount of current flowing through the nanotubes. The current can be measured, with a processor matching the "signatures" of the changes to a library of known poison gases. The MIT team believes they can develop a pocket-sized sensor system.



* PREPARE TO REPEL BOARDERS: On 19 November 2008, the Indian Navy Ship TANBAR, a frigate, was patrolling the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia when it encountered a large commercial vessel. The crew on the deck hardly seemed like ordinary seamen, since they were fitted with gear including night-vision goggles, automatic weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades. The TANBAR ordered the vessel to stop and be boarded; the response was that the frigate would be blown out of the water if it came closer.

To emphasize the threat, the vessel then fired on the TANBAR, which was much more bold than sensible given that a typical frigate, though it doesn't seem to be bristling with weapons, has substantially more firepower than any gang of pirates. A "tanbar" is of a type of battle axe -- and the frigate lived up to its name, sending the pirate ship to the bottom. There were protests later, the vessel being a Thai fishing boat that had been seized by the pirates, with a Thai crewman being killed in the shootout. The Indian Navy replied that they had been fired upon, and naturally felt obliged to respond in kind.

Piracy has become a big problem in waters off East Africa and the naval forces of several nations are collaborating to try to suppress it. However, destroyers and frigates aren't always around when a commercial vessel is under attack, so the question remains of what they can do to defend themselves. As reported in an article on BBC WORLD Online ("Technology Sets Sights On Piracy" by Daniel Emery), the obvious answer would be to arm the vessels -- but ship owners and maritime organizations are both against that idea, feeling it would only make pirates much more vicious.

There are nonlethal means to fight back, however. One is simply to shout at the pirates -- in a high-tech fashion, using such tools as the "Long-Range Audio Device (L-RAD)" and "Magnetic Acoustic Device (MAD)" that generate a focused beam of sound. If the captain of a ship fitted with MAD is nervous about an unknown vessel, he could activate the MAD "siren mode", which would tell pirates that they no longer have the element of surprise and that the potential victim will probably call for help before the pirates can board. If the pirates then close in, the captain could take evasive action and turn on "tone mode", which generates a powerful, piercing sound that has enough energy to knock a man off his feet.

Says Nick Davis of Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (APMSS), a security company that hires out three-man teams to vessels cruising through seas where pirates are common: "There are certain types of ship that are liable to pirate attack. [A target ship] needs to be slow moving, less than 20 MPH [32 KPH], and have a low freeboard -- that's the distance between the water and the deck. For vulnerable vessels, the usual measures employed when a ship leaves port is to hang barbed wire all the way round it, flood the ballast tanks, keep the fire hoses on full power and maintain a permanent deck watch. If any ship comes within a mile, you sound the general alarm and crank up the Long-Range Audio Device and get all the crew on deck."

Usually, if the vessel is alert and clearly taking precautions, the pirates will depart because they know a warship might not be that far away. However, crews will still sometimes have to repel boarders, which is where the fire hoses come in. Pirates trying to climb on board a ship find it discouraging and sometimes injurious to get a blast of high-pressure water in the face.

A Dutch company has come up with another discouragement called "Secure Ship", which is a guard rail electrified to 9,000 volts. Cyrus Moudi, the manager of the International Maritime Bureau, said that Secure Ship is useful but not suitable for all kinds of ships. "The electric fence is non-lethal and can help deter attackers. But it's not strictly safe and you cannot use it on vessels carrying flammable cargo. Electricity and explosive vapor is not a good mix."

Moudi commented: "We don't advocate the use or carriage of weapons on board a vessel. There are better ways of securing your ship. And the primary defense is having a good lookout." Since pirates often like to operate at night, the lookout job usually falls to radar, but radar can have problems picking small vessels in rough seas that "clutter" the radar return. A UK company named Cambridge Consultants is working on a "holographic radar" that can not only spot targets in adverse conditions, but even identify them. The company feels their product will be well-suited to maritime security roles.



* HUNGRY CHINA (2): China has long attempted to be as self-sufficient in resources as possible. The Shougang Group, a steelmaker on the outskirts of Beijing, was founded in 1919 and nationalized after the Revolution. Under the rule of Mao, the mill became something of a city unto itself, with its own dormitories, clinics, and so on. When Deng Xiaoping began economic liberalization in the 1980s, the mill became much more capitalist-minded and gradually streamlined its operation to attain profitability.

The Beijing plant is closing, part of a drive to clean up the city for the Olympics. A new plant is being set up on the coast, on an artificial island, capable of turning out 10 million tonnes of steel a year, compared to the 8 million tonnes produced by the old plant. With expansion and construction of more plants, Shougang plans to have 20 million tonnes of output in 2010, with up to 30 million tonnes soon after. There are no worries about having a market for such floods of steel, since the company can't produce steel fast enough to keep up with demand.

In 2006, Shougang was only the 9th largest of China's 7,000 steel producers -- twice the number as in 2002. Since 2000, Chinese steel production has tripled. The mining of iron has more than doubled since 2003, but that's still not enough to keep up with the demand for mills for ore, and that means ore imports. Imports have been rising dramatically, and now China accounts for half the global sea trade in iron ore.

China is importing more minerals across the board, as well as more food. While China has been successfully able to slow down population growth, the number of Chinese is still growing, and to compound the demand wealthier Chinese are eating more meat, which means more demand for grain as feed than would be required for direct human consumption.

In Mao's day, China strove for self-sufficiency in oil, and managed to find it by drilling the barren plains of Daqing in the northeast. The Maoist state was rightly proud of the miracle of Daqing and as late as 1990 the country was a net oil exporter, but in 1997 production at the Daqing field began to fall. The Chinese have been able to use improved technology to keep the field working and have been able to find more oil elsewhere, but no matter what is done the trendline for Chinese oil production is downward. In the meantime, as more Chinese buy motorbikes and cars, the trendline for oil demand is rising. Right now, China imports half of its oil, and by 2030 total oil yearly imports are expected to be more than yearly Saudi Arabia production.

China's hunger for imports is generally good news for exporters. Australia is now the world's biggest exporter of iron ore. Australia literally can't dig fast enough, being limited limited infrastructure and a lack of labor -- unemployment is not much of a problem in Australia. China also buys Australian coal, aluminum ore, diamonds, zinc, lead, gold, nickel, manganese, liquefied natural gas (LNG) -- and food, with Australian farmers getting wealthy sending beef, wheat, lamb, and dairy products to China. Australians feel very little xenophobia against the Chinese, with politicians happy to roll out the red (no irony intended) carpet for their guests.

To the extent that Australians are worried about foreigners looting the continent's natural resources, they don't single out the Chinese. It was only in 2007 that the Chinese displaced the Japanese as Australia's biggest trade partner, and China still accounts for only 14% of Australia's exports. China is only the 17th biggest investor in Australia. China is certainly going to be more important in the future, but the Chinese will still be just one among many other trading partners. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (10): Humans have long had a tendency to believe that nature was arranged for their own convenience. The fish were in the sea to catch and eat, horses were there to ride. This was ignoring the fact that nature is very inconsistent in its consideration. What use to humans are venomous insects and mosquitos? Once the pathogen theory of disease was well-understood, the concept of a convenient nature became much harder to maintain. As Darwin put it, if we find flat rocks useful for building a wall, however handy they may be, it would be egocentric to think they had been left lying around just for our benefit.

However, if bees were capable of belief, they would have much better cause to think of nature as convenient. The lives of bees (and other pollinators) rotate around flowers. Flowers are plant sex organs; they are often structurally optimized to attract particular pollinators, with their pollen and nectar providing sustenance for the pollinators. Plants do make pollen for their own purposes, sparing some of it for pollinators, but the nectar is strictly a gift. Plants don't make a lot of nectar -- honeybees have to visit tens of millions of flowers to make a kilo of clover honey -- but still, the plant has no personal use for it.


Flowers can end up being a lot of effort expended by a plant just to reproduce, but it turns out to be worth the plant's while. Sexual reproduction provides major advantages to large multicellular organisms -- there's actually some debate over the nature and relative importance of these advantages, one popular notion being that it allows scrambling of genomes over generations to keep organisms ahead of fast-evolving pathogens that would otherwise exterminate them. The initial approach by plants towards sexual reproduction was to just dump pollen, male germ cells analogous to our sperm, into the wind, and hope it found a receptive mate. This works and it's still in widespread use, with grasses advertising their sexual activities to hay-fever sufferers at various times of the year -- another unpleasant demonstration of nature's lack of consideration to humans, incidentally.

It would be much more effective to have some mobile animal pick up the pollen, find a mating plant, and deposit the pollen there. This is an elaborate sort of trick, and it wasn't until relatively recently, during the Age of Dinosaurs (geology has a generous interpretation of "recent") that plants picked it up. Again, it has its expense, with the plant forced to produce bright and distinctively-colored flowers as well as scents to draw pollinators; flowers can be pretty and smell nice, but it's for the benefit of bees, not us. The plant has to spare some of its pollen and, sometimes, provide nectar to keep the pollinators healthy and happy.

bee orchid

Some plants are scammers, displaying flashy advertising to draw in "customers" while providing little or no real payoff for their pollinators. The best known are orchids that imitate insects, with males landing on the flowers in an attempt to mate, only to be frustrated and dusted with pollen bundles. There are bee, fly, and wasp orchids. One of the more interesting wasp orchids is the hammer orchid, in which the dummy female is on a spring-loaded stalk. When the male lands, he is hammered repeatedly against the pollen-bearing part of the flower.

The bucket orchid pulls a comparable stunt on bees, but using a different method. This orchid is similar to the predatory pitcher plants, which feature a bath of liquid into which insects fall, to drown and be digested. The bucket orchid isn't quite so malevolent, being more of a nasty prankster. A bee, attracted by a fake scent of a female bee, falls into the bath and struggles, but luckily finds a pathway out. The pathway is so arranged that the bee is loaded with pollen packets as he makes its escape from the trap. When the bee is trapped by another bucket orchid, he will leave the pollen packets behind as he makes his exit.

Plants not only have ingenious mechanisms to ensure that pollinators get their fair share of pollen, they also have schemes to restrict access to specific pollinators. Red flowers with deep throats are generally adaptations that favor hummingbirds: the red attracts the birds, and only the long bills of the hummingbirds can get at the nectar with much success. Others are selective to bees, flies, or wasps -- the mimics described in the previous installment -- or to night moths, using white color and scents as advertisement.

The reason for the selectivity is obvious: if a particular pollinator is restricted to a particular range of plants, the better the odds that the pollinator will cross-fertilize a pair of plants. If all pollinators hit on all plants, a plant would have to produce a lot of pollen and get a lot of visits in hopes of getting lucky and scoring with some remote plant of his own species. At some point, it would become just as useful to scatter the pollen to the wind again.

The selectivity is not absolute: just because a plant is well suited to one particular type of pollinator doesn't mean it won't be visited by others, nor that the suitable pollinator won't visit plants to which it is less well adapted. Evolution generally works by gradations and biases, not strict rules. Pollinators also have an evolutionary incentive to broaden their target plant range to ensure a more reliable food supply.

Pollinating is not an easy way to make a living, with pollinators having to visit many plants rapidly to obtain adequate sustenance. In Germany alone, on a normal summer's day honeybees are estimated to pollinate ten trillion plants. This is a mega-industrial-sized process, and in fact it is economically important, with about 30% of crop plants requiring pollinators to propagate. It must be conceded that pollinators do provide an undeniable degree of convenience to us. We injure the well-being of pollinators at our own hazard. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SPEAK THE TRUTH? As discussed in an article in WIRED ("The Daily Bribe" by Yasha Levine, August 2008), Moscow was basking in unseasonably pleasant weather at the beginning of February 2008 -- but Sergey Gorshkov, who runs the website "kompromat.ru", wasn't enjoying it. Gorshkov's website had a tendency to run articles that embarrassed those in power, and with Russian presidential elections just a few days away, kompromat.ru wasn't running. He wasn't all that surprised, since the government started hassling him eight years before, not long after he set up the website. When he complained about his site being blocked, the answer was that there was some sort of technical glitch, or sometimes that nobody knew about any problem.

On 2 March 2008, Dmitri Medvedev became the new president of Russia, replacing President Vladimir Putin. The outcome was no surprise, since Medvedev was Putin's hand-picked successor -- with Putin becoming Medvedev's prime minister, an office that had of course just been given elevated powers. There were grumblings about vote fraud, but even if there was, Medvedev would have almost certainly won anyway, since Putin's leadership was wildly popular, welcomed by many Russians after suffering through the humiliatingly useless Yeltsin administration. In any case, four days later kompromat.ru was back online as if nothing had happened.

Sounds like a case of a fearless fighter for human rights squaring off against overbearing government authority, right? Not exactly. This is Russia, where things rarely happen in such a squeaky-clean fashion. Sergey Gorshkov may be hassled by the police on occasion, but he frequents high-end establishments with the Moscow elite and is said to bring in the equivalent of a million USD a year with kompromat.ru. He makes no pretense of being anything resembling a crusader: "When people read my site, they imagine a person who's angry at everything and everyone, an activist, an idealist. But that's not me. This is just a business."

Gorshkov writes nothing for kompromat.ru; he simply operates the website as a place where any sort of news can be published. He says: "I never take sides." In fact, he doesn't even check on the validity of the materials. He began the website in 1999, basically to disseminate tabloid scandal stories. Things were not going at all well in Russia at the time and there was more than enough dirt floating around, along with a lot of Russians who were eager to read it. Smear tactics were often used in public disputes, with the practice acquiring the name of "kompromat". Gorshkov, who had been a currency trader, saw an opportunity to profit from the environment. After Putin was elected president in 2000, the government began to throttle free speech, shutting down independent news sources, which had the unintended effect of elevating kompromat.ru.

Then, in April 2001, Gorshkov got an unbelievable scoop, a video of well-known Moscow news anchor Yevgeny Kiselev engaged in a wild orgy. Kiselev was regarded as something along the lines of a Russian Walter Cronkite, and this was definitely news. Gorshkov chopped out the most interesting segments of the video and put them on his website. His server promptly overloaded, and kompromat.ru has been busy ever since.

So where does Gorshkov get his money? That's something he leaves a bit unclear. People pay to run stories on kompromat.ru, with the charge rising steeply if the story might invite a libel suit. Gorshkov has been in fact sued a number of times, but most of the suits have been thrown out, and even when they weren't, all he did was take down the offending article in response. He has no vested interest in any of the articles published on his website, only an interest in making sure people know he won't dump their articles unless he's absolutely forced to do so. He neither knows nor really cares about the articles themselves. He has no idea of whether they're true or not, or who's actually behind them. As long as he gets paid, what's it to him?

The line of work does have its drawbacks, of course. There have been the police visits, the shutdowns, and denial-of-service attacks; he maintains a mirror site in the US to help keep kompromat.ru going. Gorshkov says: "If they have a problem, they can sue me in America." There is the somewhat more fearsome risk of being gunned down; a few prominent Russian journalists who rocked the boat were murdered, with many suspecting government connections to the killings. Some think Gorshkov has protectors in high places, but he denies that. He never takes sides, after all, and though people may get mad about some of the things said on kompromat.ru, Gorshkov isn't the real target of their wrath.

Is that enough to shield him from harm? Who knows? Nothing in modern Russia is transparent. In principle, the country has free speech and politicians insist it is the law of the land. Nobody has actually passed laws to ban free speech, though government pressure and a few murders have proven effective in suppressing it -- and if somebody in power wants to take Gorshkov down, he's going down, possibly permanently and with extreme prejudice. It may be that people in power find kompromat.ru useful for their own purposes; it is strongly suspected, for instance, that the videotape of Kiselev was leaked by a government official who was an enemy of Kiselev's.

For the moment, Gorshkov and kompromat.ru continue to fly high, with no shortage of readers. He may be an equal opportunity opportunist, but that may be as close as one can get to free speech in Russia these days. Even those who don't admire his mindset have to concede that he's performing a useful service -- of sorts.



* THE TRAILING EDGE: Technology advances very quickly these days, and the general impulse is to want the newest and best thing. However, as reported in IEEE SPECTRUM ("Trapped On Technology's Trailing Edge" by Peter Sandborn, April 2008), it may not always be desireable or practical to junk the old and replace it -- and trying to keep such "trailing edge" technologies working can be troublesome.

Military technologies are particularly vulnerable to obsolescence. They often take years to develop and test, to then be retained in service for long periods. For example, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth Bomber might seem to be a leading-edge combat aircraft, and it is, but was designed in the 1980s, went into service in the 1990s, and now trying to keep it flying right is a troublesome job. The B-2 initially flew in 1989; by 1996 it was no longer possible to replace parts of the defensive countermeasures system, and so the system had to be updated with new, functionally identical circuit boards, at a cost of $21 million USD.

Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bomber

Electronics obsolescence -- formally referred to as "diminishing manufacturing sources & material shortages (DMSMS)" -- has become even more troublesome as technology life-cycles have accelerated. By the time the US Navy began installing a new sonar system in surface warfare vessels in 2002, more than 70% of the system's electronics components were out of production. While the military is arguably the worst case, there are commercial technologies that have long life-cycles and are also threatened by the disappearance of parts: commercial aircraft, communications infrastructure, or amusement-park rides.

Most electronic components are produced for consumer electronics gear, which typically has a life-cycle of about four years. A laptop computer is usually only listed for sale for about a year and a half. With military gear, a year and a half is usually shorter than the project definition phase, much less the actual development phase: systems with long life-cycles are usually those that demand high reliability, so they necessarily have long development and testing phases. It is estimated that about 3% of electronic components go out of production every month. Ironically, when the military began to feel the pain from electronic parts obsolescence in the 1980s, the trend was to increase the use of commercial components instead of limited-market milspec components -- which turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to do.

The pace of the life cycle poses a definite challenge to engineers designing long-lived systems, demanding that they have a handle on parts obsolescence even before the product goes out the door. It wasn't so in the past. Many combat aircraft, or jetliners like the Boeing 737, were designed in the 1960s, when consumer electronics meant TVs, phonographs, and transistor radios, with the military and aerospace dominating high-tech electronics. Components could be expected to be available for at least twenty years; now they disappear in a tenth of that time.

Old systems tend to become an increasing maintenance headache as they wear out, and the evaporation of components only makes matters worse, much worse. After a certain threshold, it would seem to be cheaper to just buy new and get the latest gear, but the money being pumped into keeping the old gear working means less money to buy a replacement. The Pentagon spends about $10 billion USD a year coping with electronic-part obsolescence. Just finding parts and ensuring that they are actually appropriate to a particular system can be a monster job. The lack of crucial parts now fuels a multibillion-dollar industry of obsolescence forecasting, reverse-engineering outfits, foundries, and unfortunately, a thriving market of counterfeits.

There are two basic strategies for dealing with the problem: parts can be stockpiled in a "lifetime buy" before they are discontinued, or subsystems can redesigned to use new parts. Both approaches are inefficient and expensive. To be sure, systems can be designed in a modular way to ensure that subsystems are relatively easy to replace, and they can also leverage off software for functionality, reducing dependence on parts. Unfortunately, software also goes obsolete quickly, and old software can be very troublesome to maintain and upgrade, particularly as the engineers who designed it move to other jobs or retire.

Software planning systems have been developed to help organizations deal with obsolescence. The software can determine if a lifetime buy or a redesign is the better option; if redesign is better, the software can then schedule updates of systems in step with the expected obsolescence of the components. There doesn't seem to be any hope or for that matter any good reason to hope that technology cycles are going to slow down, and in fact they are likely to get even faster. Long-lived systems will simply have to be designed and supported on the basis of such a reality, ensuring that upgrades are easy to perform and qualify on a regular basis.

* ED: When I was working in the corporate world in customer support, the trailing edge was something we dealt with on a continuous basis. The most drastic example I recall was when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory suddenly needed to get their hands on an HP 9845 workstation, produced in the early 1980s, since it was the only platform that ran the software originally developed to support the Galileo Jupiter orbiter spacecraft. Fortunately we were able to steer JPL to a California businessman named Stuart Ex, who specialized in reselling old computer gear.

People like Stu were life-savers at times. Once I found out that the factory was collecting up piles of old kit, plug-in cards and the like, for obsolete HP computers, and was about to junk them. I was appalled, some of the stuff had never been used, it was still sealed in boxes and plastic, and once it was disposed of it would be beyond recovery. I managed to grab the stuff myself -- it wasn't like anyone was inclined to fight me over it -- and then called up Stu: "I'll send you all this stuff if you'll pay shipping."

He jumped at it, as well he might, since he could command a nice price for the goods. I felt very satisfied with the deal, but I also suspected I had stepped on countless corporate rules to get the job done. There was nothing corrupt in the exercise, I didn't make a penny off of it myself, and the factory would have had to gone through the expense of disposing of all the materials -- but if someone had chosen to jump on the issue, it had a strong appearance of impropriety.

Every now and then the senior management would get a whiff of how customer support did things and get very upset, since it could be totally outside of the rules. We could only shrug: "People contact us because the rules aren't working and we have to fix things. If you wanted us to do things by-the-book, we wouldn't be doing our jobs. The book generally doesn't even cover this sort of stuff."



* CELLPHONE THREAT? The idea that cellphones may cause brain tumors has been bouncing around like a pinball for the last decade or so, with some studies showing that there is some risk and others showing absolutely none. As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Mobile Madness", 27 September 2008), the confusion in the headlines suggests just how tricky epidemiological research really is.

There has been no lack of effort to straighten out the tangle. An attempt to perform a comprehensive survey of the evidence on cellphone health hazards was begun in 2000 under the name "Interphone", with about 50 researchers in 13 countries obtaining data on 114,000 cellphone users. The research itself was concluded in 2006 after an expenditure of $30 million USD -- but the researchers have yet to come to any consensus on the results. The problem is that Interphone is a consolidation of studies performed in individual nations; results for 9 of the 13 countries involved have been released, and they have been troublingly inconsistent. That's not surprising, since the national studies were with smaller samples and so have greater opportunities for sampling errors. However, the fact that some of the studies showed that cellphone use was actually correlated to a lower incidence of brain tumors has caused consternation, and an admission by some of the researchers involved that their studies left something to be desired.

One problem was "selection bias". Interphone started by querying patients suffering from brain tumors to determine their cellphone use, and then expanded the investigation to healthy citizens as a control group. Not everyone who was asked agreed to contribute to the survey. Of those who did, 59% were found to be regular cellphone users. Later, those who didn't contribute to the survey were queried about their cellphone use, and only 34% were regular users. That meant that the control group wasn't representative of the general population. To compound the difficulties, "regular cellphone use" was defined as the use of a cellphone once a week over the previous six months. That's a very low rate of usage, and would seem simple logic that if there is a threat from cellphone use, it rises with frequency of use. Another problem was that during 2001:2002, those queried about their cellphone use a decade earlier would have been using analogue and not digital cellphones, which might well have entirely different effects.

The worst problem was "recall bias". Ask somebody what their cellphone habits were several years in the past, and they may not be able to give a reliable answer. In particular, ask someone who is suffering from a brain tumor on one side of the brain which ear they used with their cellphone, they'll have a bias towards saying: "Gosh! I recall it was on the same side of my head as picked up the tumor!" This was obviously a problem in some of the surveys, because they came up with the result that cellphone use appeared to inhibit tumors on the other side of the head, which was clearly nonsensical.

The researchers involved in the Interphone study were not so inept that they were unaware of such sources of bias, and attempted to correct for them. They were able in some cases to get the actual call records for the various subjects from their cellphone service providers -- to find out that the number of calls was underestimated by 20% and the length of calls was underestimated by 40%.

The reason the Interphone study hasn't been released is because the researchers involved haven't been able to figure out how to resolve the questions over the various sources of bias in the study. The researchers are now said to be split into three factions: one that maintains the seeming health hazard is just a statistical artifact; a second that maintains the health hazard is real; and a third that is keeping mum. Relations between the groups are said to be "strained". In the meantime, the uncertainty persists, and some organizations have issued warnings to their people to limit their cellphone use. One silver lining of Interphone's problems has been that studies in the works now are planning to use "prospective data" and not just "retrospective data". That means that existing cellphone users will be tracked over time and that the studies will not simply ask about past usage.

* ED: I don't use a cellphone so I have no worries on this, but I would say that if there was a substantial risk, it would be obvious by now. There may be an enhanced risk but not a major one. A sidebar to this article discussed people who claim to be "electrosensitive", experiencing pain from exposure to wireless fields. Researchers at the University of Regensburg in Germany looked into the phenomenon and came to some interesting conclusions. What they did was give electrosensitive subjects real phones and sham phones, then asked them if they felt discomfort. In both cases they did, and brain scans showed they were feeling real pain. Such is the power of suggestion that when people expect pain, they can inflict it on themselves.



* HUNGRY CHINA (1): The emergence of China as a global economic power has led to a crunch on resources as the country seeks fuel and raw materials to keep the engine of commerce running. THE ECONOMIST ran an extended survey in the 15 March 2008 issue ("A Ravenous Dragon" by Edward McBride) worth summarizing here.

The survey starts in the Congo's mining belt, Katanga province, where expatriate Chinese have set up shop in force to mine, refine, and haul away the copper there. The Chinese invasion is poised to ramp up: in 2007, the Congolese government announced that the Chinese would pump $12 billion USD to build or refurbish Congolese infrastructure for the right to mine an equivalent value of copper. This sum amounts to three times the Congo's national budget, and far more than all other foreign investment -- both in the form of commercial contracts and aid -- combined.

China use to be an isolationist country, but it's not any more. The Chinese are hauling oil, gas, coal, and metals from countries ranging from Canada to Australia to Indonesia to Kazakhstan. Chinese purchases in Africa and Latin America have been a major contributor to economic growth in those regions. China, with a fifth of the world's population, consumes half the world's cement, a third of its steel, over a quarter of its aluminum -- and China's demand is rising. This has caused fear and resentment among China's competitors on the international market, for example the USA. Of course, it doesn't take any rocket scientist to realize that Chinese demand has been pushing up the price of fuel, food, and other necessities. There are fears that Chinese investment is propping up dictatorial regimes, as well as promoting ruthless exploitation of the environment and local populations.

However, it can be argued that there is nothing unique about China in the international market for raw materials, the only real issue being that China is the new big kid on the block who is making the old-timers nervous. Western nations have not been noted for being particularly benign in obtaining raw materials from developing countries either, and have not had great difficulty in dealing with nasty dictators.

Chinese investment is overall a good thing to countries that have long been ignored to suffer in poverty, and to the extent that Chinese investment helps build up commercial infrastructure, it benefits all the players. Although Chinese competition does put pressure on prices and resource availability, the other players are powerful as well and nobody really thinks the Chinese will get a broad stranglehold on the markets. China is also increasingly concerned about its international image and doesn't come across as completely insensitive to criticisms by activist groups.

The biggest problem with Chinese industrialization is at home. Already, the country has a bad reputation for air and water pollution, and as industrialization continues to ramp up, it's likely to get worse. China cannot import clean air and water. The global scramble for resources is one challenge to Chinese leadership; but it doesn't compare with the challenge of China's environmental problems. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (9): While the discussion of the evolution of the eye has so far mostly focused on the camera-type eye -- via cup to pinhole camera to true camera eye -- there is a radically different approach to building an eye. Imagine an image receptor cell at the end of a tube with opaque walls. The tube would provide a narrow field of view that would allow some discrimination, at the expense of a very poor awareness of the broad visual environment around an organism.

But what if we get an array of such receptors and arrange them over the surface of a hemisphere? The result is the compound eye of the insect, which provides fair resolution and a better overall field of view than the camera eye. In practice the receptor of the compound eye -- the "ommatidium", plural "ommatidia" -- is a little more than just a mere tube, having its own lens and roughly a half dozen optical receptor cells at the bottom. Most ommatidia have dark walls, but some organisms with compound eyes survive by being inconspicuous, and dark eyes are a giveaway. Such organisms may have ommatidia that operate like fiber-optic "light pipes", with the light guided down the center of the pipe by the fact that the centerline has a lower index of refraction than the outer layers of the pipe.

fly compound eyes

The compound eye is so different from our own camera eye that it is a bit difficult to figure out exactly what an insect sees with it. Observations of insect behavior suggest that at least in some cases the compound eye simply acts as a wide-field motion sensor to give warnings of threats, and to allow it to track and assess prey. The compound eye is definitely limited by the amount of resolution it can obtain. A dragonfly eye may have 30,000 ommatidia, which sounds like a lot, but to match the resolution of our own vision it would need millions of them. To even approach our vision would require compound eyes the size of beachballs. Some animals with compound eyes do compensate with neural crosswiring between ommatidia that allows them to obtain better imagery through elaborate optical processing, but the resolution problem is inherent in the compound eye scheme.

In some respects the compound eye is an evolutionary dead end, and it's actually not found in many animals other than insects and crustaceans. So why haven't they evolved "proper" camera eyes like their arthropod cousins, the spiders? Sorry, evolution doesn't work in a deliberative fashion; it's stuck with contingency. The insects and crustaceans went down a particular branch of eye development and they obtained an eye that does the job for them well enough; going to a camera eye would require scrapping the compound eye and starting over. Evolution by natural selection doesn't normally involve the process of backing up and trying again.

It can happen, through. There is at least one example of an organism that did just that. Some deep-sea crustaceans, living in eternal near-darkness, have simplified compound eyes, the ommatidia having lost their tubes with the eye reduced to a simply array of photosensor cells. One crustacean named Ampelisca actually does have a camera eye, uniquely or nearly so among crustaceans -- but the retina is clearly derived from an array of stripped-down ommatidia. The speculation is that the ancestors of Ampelisca went through a deep-sea sequence that caused their compound eyes to degenerate. Ampelisca itself does not live in the dark depths, and in its adaptations to an environment where there was more light available, it redeveloped the eye along the camera path. One step back, two steps forward.

* In sum, the answer to the question of how evolution produces an eye is: any way it occurs to happen. The eyes of all animals seem to trace back to a common origin, as demonstrated by the fact that they share a universal genetic "command" that could be simply described as BUILD AN EYE, but from that root, eye development has gone off in dozens of different directions. Critics of modern evolutionary theory still try to use the eye as a criticism. Advocates wonder how anyone who took a clear look at it could think it anything but evidence. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for November included:

-- 05 NOV 08 / ASTRA 1M -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the SES ASTRA "ASTRA 1M" geostationary comsat into orbit. ASTRA 1M was built by EADS Astrium and was based on the Eurostar E3000 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 3,500 kilograms (7,720 pounds), a payload of 36 Ku-band transponders, three deployable antennas, twin solar arrays with a span of 35 meters (115 feet), and a 15-year design life.

ASTRA 1M was placed in the geostationary slot at 19.2 degrees East longitude to provide direct-to-home programming and high-definition TV across Europe and North Africa. With the launch of ASTRA 1M, SES ASTRA was operating a comsat fleet consisting of 16 spacecraft, transmitting over 2,400 radio and TV channels to 117 million homes.

-- 06 NOV 08 / SHIYAN 3, CHUANGXIN 1-02 -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan to put the "Shiyan 3" and "Chuangxin 1-02" satellites into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. Shiyan 3 was described as a test platform to evaluate new atmospheric sensing technologies and was built by the Harbin Institute of Technology. Chuangxin 1-02 was a smallsat intended to provide communications relay weather and Earth observation data from other spacecraft. It was built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and, as its designation suggested, was the second such spacecraft to be flown.

-- 14 NOV 08 / COSMOS 2445 (KOBALT-M 4) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from the Russian Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put a secret military payload into space. The satellite was designated "Cosmos 2445". It was believed to be a Kobalt-M optical reconnaissance satellite. The Kobalt-M is a film-return type satellite, with two film "buckets" and a recoverable main bus. It was the fourth Kobalt-M launch.

-- 15 NOV 08 / SHUTTLE ENDEAVOUR -- The NASA space shuttle Endeavour was launched from Kennedy Space Center on "STS-126", the 124th shuttle mission. It was the 22nd flight of Endeavour.

The crew included commander Navy Captain Chris Ferguson (second space flight); pilot USAF Colonel Eric Boe (first flight); mission specialists Navy Captain Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper (second flight), Navy Captain Stephen Bowen (first flight), Don Pettit PhD (second flight), plus USAF Lieutenant Colonel Shane Kimbrough (first flight); and Sandy Magnus PhD (second flight), who was to join the ISS Expedition 18 crew, replacing Greg Chamitoff of the Expedition 17 crew.

shuttle Endeavour with MPLM & docking adapter

Endeavour docked with the ISS on 16 November, with the Leonardo MPLM cargo module hooked up to the station the next day. The primary goal of the mission was delivery and installation of a new toilet and water purification gear designed to convert urine into ultra-pure water for drinking and other purposes. Other objectives included the installation of a new galley and two sleep stations. The "home improvement" exercise was intended as part of a plan to increase the ISS's full-time crew from three to six in 2009 -- the recycling system was required to reduce the requirements for shipping enough water to the station to support six crew. The mission also performed work on outfitting the Japanese ISS Kibo module and fixes on a solar panel rotating joint.

The shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on KSC late on 29 November, with Chamitoff returning home on Endeavour while Magnus remained on the ISS. Low clouds and crosswinds at Kennedy led to two wave-offs of landings there and finally the decision to divert to California. The mission had lasted 15 days 20 hours 30 minutes. The shuttle was flown back to Florida on top of NASA's Boeing 747 shuttle carrier aircraft on 10 & 11 December.

-- 26 NOV 08 / PROGRESS M-01M -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Progress M-01M" unmanned freighter-tanker spacecraft into orbit. It provided supplies for the ISS Expedition 18 crew, docking with the station on 30 November.



* THANKSGIVING DINNER EXAMINED: Around Thanksgiving -- fourth Thursday in November in the USA -- WIRED Online ran an interesting article that described how the Pilgrims would have been astonished at a modern Thanksgiving turkey dinner. They had corn, potatoes, and turkey in those days, of course, but modern industrial farming has produced corn that is sweeter, potatoes that are starchier, and turkeys that are much bigger than those our forebears consumed. Although humans have been tinkering with their crops and livestock through selective breeding for as long as they have been farming the land, in the last 50 years big agricultural companies have greatly accelerated the process, with direct genetic engineering playing an increasing role.

Americans like a medium-size corn kernel, so kernels aren't too big or small. American consumers like white meat, so turkeys are grown with larger breasts. The average pig, turkey, cow and chicken have gotten larger at an astounding rate, and they grow with unprecedented speed. In 2007, US farmers produced 33 times as much turkey by weight as they did in 1929. During that interval, the average size of a turkey went from 5.9 kilos (13 pounds) to 13.2 kilos (29 pounds); if the trendline continues, turkeys could reach 18.2 kilos (40 pounds) by as early as 2020. Even now, leading-edge turkey-breeding programs have produced birds that can reach 22.7 kilos (50 pounds) in five months. In addition, fast-growing big birds are more efficient than their forebears, with the ratio of weight of feed to body weight now at 2.5. For "legacy" turkeys, the ratio is 4.

tom turkey

John Anderson, a turkey breeder at Ohio State University, says that the trick to bigger tom turkeys was not genetic engineering but artificial insemination, which was introduced for turkeys in the 1960s. An oversized tom turkey has trouble getting around, much less having sex, and without artificial insemination the big bird line would die out quickly. Ohio State has been working to make sure the birds can still walk, however.

Corn breeding has similarly produced sweet corn about six times sweeter than that grown by the Pilgrims and the native tribes. The corn the tribes were growing when the Pilgrims arrived was basically starchy, much along the lines of modern corn raised to feed animals. Sweet corn arose late in the 18th century, the result of a mutation that increased the production of sugar at the expense of starch. It was only about 10% sugar, but since that time the sugar ratio has been persistently increased, with "supersweet" or "sugar enhanced" corn finally emerging in the 1970s that had a sugar ratio of up to 25%.

Not all the modifications in crop plants and livestock are made to make consumers happy; retailer and food processor requirements also factor into the exercise. Potato production, for example, is driven by the market for french fries and potato chips, with the result that potatoes have been bred for more starch and less sugar, exactly the reverse of sweet corn. The reason is that potatoes with high sugar content get soggy and turn brown when deep-fried, while high-starch potatoes produce a nice, crisp, golden-colored fry.

Of course there's the notorious example of the modern commercial tomato, bred for shelf life at the clear expense of flavor. People who want tasty tomatoes have to grow them at home, and eat them when they're ripe since they go bad quickly. One of these days the plant designers may be able to give us the best of both worlds, but until then we're stuck with tasteless store-bought tomatoes.



* OBAMA'S GITMO QUANDARY: THE ECONOMIST has been running a series of articles consisting of imaginary memos taken from Barack Obama's Blackberry, with one discussing the detention center at Guantanamo. It is clear that once Obama takes office, "Gitmo" is going to be shut down, and few are going to complain. The center has been a painful embarrassment to the American brand name, an example of high-handed decision-making and contempt for the rule of law, and from that point of view the sooner it's gone, the better.

Alas, as reported in the ECONOMIST ("Subject: Guantanamo", 22 November 2008), pulling the plug on Gitmo isn't quite as straightforward as it might seem. The Bush II Administration set up the center after the 9-11-2001 terror attacks on the USA to get around normal American legal due process -- and not without some amount of reason, since the legal precedents for dealing with a war against a stateless group of international terrorists were murky. As it turned out, Gitmo had a number of nasty downsides that were either not understood or downplayed by the White House at the outset, and the general consensus is that it was a mistake.

The Bush II Administration at least tacitly admits that Gitmo was a dead end and has actually been trying to wind the center down. Most of the detainees are gone now, but getting rid of the last 260 or so has become very troublesome. Many are small fish, in many cases probably innocent, but their home countries don't want them, or the governments that will accept them may very well torture and execute them -- there are fears that Chinese Uighar inmates may face a bleak future if they are sent home. International law says the USA can't send prisoners home to their doom. Friendly countries may take a few, but most will have to be released in America. Some may go back to terrorist activities, but as General Barry McCaffrey has bluntly put it, it might well be cheaper and cleaner to kill them in combat than to sit on them for another 15 years.

About 80 are honestly hard cases, most prominently Khalid Sheik Mohammad, who was supposedly the "brains" behind the 9-11 attacks. The obvious solution is to put the hard cases on trial, but that leads immediately to the next question of what kind of trial. The Bush II Administration's military tribunals have been widely regarded as kangaroo courts, and any other sort of special court would be tarred with the same brush. That leaves as the only available options the normal procedures of military or civilian courts. The difficulty is that a normal court is going to take a very dim view of evidence that may have been extracted under torture, and could very well throw the case out. If Khalid Sheik Mohammad really did mastermind 9-11, would anyone be all that comfortable about letting him go?

In fact, for some of the hard cases it's already obvious that nobody has any evidence against them that would possibly stand up in court. Any appreciation of simple legal due process says they will have to be released, but the FBI says there are too many of them to keep under reliable surveillance. That leaves as the next option setting up a special detention center on the US mainland to handle the prisoners, but that will lead to the obvious charge that the Obama Administration did nothing but set up a "Gitmo North".

This is not to say that shutting down Guantanamo is a bad idea; it was the detention center that was the bad idea and it needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately, as so often happens in the real world, there may not be a clean solution. There is a saying that once one has opened a can of worms, the only way to get them back in is to find a bigger can, and the Obama Administration may have problems finding a bigger can.



* NEW PC ADVENTURES (7): After all my shufflings of PC gear, I ended up with my old Dell laptop in the kitchen. I had bought it in 2003 so it was on the threshold of obsolescence, but it was still in excellent condition and working fine, so I didn't want to get rid of it. However, I couldn't figure out a good use for it. I tried using it to run video downloads to watch while I ate -- but it was more trouble than it was worth. I tried to use it as a music player -- but it was much less convenient than just playing the MP3 CD player I had in the adjoining living room.

Then I recalled the "Berkeley Open Infrastructure For Network Computing (BOINC)". This is a system that coordinates donated use of a PC for distributed computing projects. The classic example of a distributed PC computing project is "SETI@home", which I believe was the very first, in which donated PC computing time was used to perform signal processing on signals obtained by radio telescopes in the hopes of finding a message from another civilization among noise. Other distributed PC computing projects followed, and Berkeley eventually came up with BOINC to provide a standard umbrella for all them to work underneath.

BOINC logo

I had a plug-in wi-fi card for the Dell laptop, and since my DSL modem had wi-fi capabilities, that meant the Dell had high-speed access to the internet and could run BOINC. I got onto the BOINC site and downloaded the software. It was a bit confusing to figure out. The BOINC software provides configuration of the PC system, allowing specification of PC resources and usage. Once configuration is complete, it provides a list of projects, with a project selected simply by going to the appropriate website and obtaining an account. The BOINC software takes care of the rest.

I was a little baffled at the outset because I couldn't figure out what the BOINC system was doing. Was it working? I couldn't tell. As it turns out, there is a tab page in the software for "tasks" that lists the last completed task for any of the distributed applications, as well as the current tasks in progress. The system switches between apps roughly on an hourly basis. The BOINC software provides statistics of the work spent on each of the apps in another tab page; it takes a few days for enough to get done to register in the stats.

I ended up taking on four different BOINC projects:

I picked four because the apps don't run all the time. I only ran SIMAP for a short time before the network computing session reached completion, and then the SIMAP people had to regroup for a few weeks to set up a follow-on computing session. With four, the Dell isn't likely to be sitting idle much of the time.

So now I also have a scientific computing server running 24:7:365. I have a plug-in electric power meter, and the Dell seems to run about 50 watts when the display powers down, which is its normal state of operation. That means it costs me three to four dollars a month to operate. I do have a problem sometimes in that I'll be working online on the desktop and the DSL modem will go to a crawl, giving me timeouts -- the first time I wondered what was going on, the second time I realized that I was getting hit by an upload or download of a BOINC workset through the modem's wi-fi connection.

I'd actually had the vague idea of setting up a BOINC PC much earlier, but it was one of those "what if" ideas that didn't amount to any plan. When I finally had the hardware available to do the job and nothing better to do with it, once the idea popped back into my head I was flying almost immediately.

* In the end, what started out as a minor upgrade turned out to be a radical makeover of my household digital systems, down to the telephone. The expense wasn't any big deal, it hardly dented my slush fund, but getting things to work was far more time and effort than I planned. I figure that now I'm generally up to speed on everything, I've got better and more effective tools that will make my life easier. It was fun to be confronted with one little challenge after another and overcome them all, admittedly with haywire solutions in some cases. I just don't want to have to do it again any time soon. I don't think I will, I should be happy with what I've got for the next few years at least. [END OF SERIES]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (8): Other fine details of the construction of eyes show a diversity that suggests evolution. The focusing lens of the human eye, for example, formed by the condensation of a "high refraction" zone out of a mass of transparent jelly. The lens of the fish and squid eye is formed in much the same way -- but sawfly larva form a simple eye with a lens formed of a thickened cornea, and mayfly larva form a simple eye from a mass of transparent cells.

One of the famous examples of diversity in eye formation is that the light-receptor cells in the human eye are in "backwards" -- they're behind the optical nerves. This seems to work well enough, though it does mean that the nerves have to be routed through a central "blind spot" in the middle of our field of view. We don't notice the blind spot because the brain works around it. The squid eye uses the reverse organization, with the light receptor cells in front of the optical nerves. Either way works fine -- the different approaches simply reflect "contingency", the constraint of past history.

The number of light receptor cells in an eye, to no surprise, is proportional to the size of an eye, which means small eyes tend to have low resolution. Spiders have camera eyes along the lines of our own, nothing like the compound eyes of insects. Jumping spiders have tiny eyes but have achieved relatively high resolution vision through an ingenious evolutionary trick. Their retina is not in the form of a sheet but organized as a vertical strip. To get a better image, they simply vibrate the strip back and forth.

Many nocturnal animals have a reflecting backing to their retina called the "tapetum lucidum". It bounces back light that would otherwise have passed through the retina and been lost, improving sensitivity. Cat's are the best-known example of animals with a tapetum lucidum, which causes their eyes to gleam in the light of car headlights. Certain kinds of spiders also have a tapetum lucidum. There are, however, some nocturnal animals that don't, most notably the South American owl monkey and the Old World tarsier -- with the result that they have oversized eyes. It might have been nice for them to get a tapetum lucidum, but they didn't win that prize in the evolutionary lottery. Incidentally, there are some nocturnal primates, like the African golden potto, that do have a tapetum lucidum.

One particular freakish branch of the evolution of eyes concerns certain "four-eyed fish." The idea of having more than two eyes is not particularly bizarre, spiders usually having eight, and there are three separate groups of four-eyed fish that are not closely related to each other, meaning they evolved independently. However, among one group there is a fish with a peculiar "double eye", consisting of a regular camera eye, with a secondary eye lodged in the bottom of the main eye but set to stare straight down. The fish isn't well enough studied to know what it uses the secondary eye for, but it certainly suggests that if an animal really has use for a secondary eye, it's not unlikely for it to obtain one through the evolutionary lottery.

Beyond the diversity of organizations of camera-type eyes, scallops have eyes that resemble a reflecting telescope, with a mirror in the back reflecting to a retina in the front. The scallop eye does have a lens as well, it seems to correct for what is known as "spherical aberration" in the reflecting surface. This is actually, broadly speaking, the organization of the common Schmidt telescope, with the scheme providing a wide field of view. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A BBC WORLD Online report took an interesting look at a new technology: electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigs", which are catching on in the UK. The concept, which was invented in China, is very clever. An e-cig is a white plastic cylinder, about the size of and reminiscent of a ballpoint pen, but with a mouthpiece on one end and an orange LED on the other. It contains a rechargeable battery, an electronic controller, a replaceable cartridge full of liquid, and a piezoelectric vaporizing unit. When the user takes a drag, the liquid from the cartridge is vaporized to be inhaled, while the LED glows to simulate a real cigarette.


The bulk of the cartridge fluid is propylene glycol, a mildly sweet and viscous alcohol; it gives the mist produced by the e-cig the appearance of cigarette smoke. The contents of the rest of the fluid depends on the recipe. Nicotine is of course a common component, with some cartridges providing as much nicotine as a regular cigarette, but cartridges available with lowered nicotine content all the way down to zero. There's a list of other possible ingredients, particularly flavorings, such as orange or mint or, of course, tobacco.

An e-cig costs about $80 USD. It can run from a day to a week on a single battery charge, with a cartridge good for hundreds of drags. The cartridges can be refilled. Manufacturers of e-cigs claim they are a healthy replacement for cigarettes and can be used effectively by people trying to give up smoking. These claims are plausible, but government regulatory organization worldwide have made it clear that the claims are not yet backed up by any proper medical studies.

However, the regulatory organizations are also somewhat stymied by the fact that e-cigs can't be regulated under existing tobacco laws, since they don't contain tobacco; they can be smoked in places where smoking is otherwise banned. The technology seems to have considerable potential, possibly useful for drug delivery or other therapeutics, and hopefully medical studies will be able to sort out the claims being made for it in the near future.

* Helicopters tend to fly close to the ground, and have a maneuverability that no fixed-wing aircraft can match. All that's well and good, but the problem is they have a nasty tendency to run into things such as trees and power lines, particularly in bad weather and the dark. The US Army has now awarded a contract to Raytheon to develop a sensor system to provide day and night "spherical situational awareness".

The term "situational awareness" is milspeak for "knowing what the hell is going on around you." As envisioned, the "Advanced Distributed Aperture System (ADAS)" will consist of six infrared sensors arranged over the helicopter to provide all-around vision, with the inputs digitally assimilated and presented to the pilot on a helmet-mounted display. ADAS could also be incorporated into a targeting or defensive countermeasures system.

* As reported in THE ECONOMIST, Chinese researchers have developed thin films made of carbon nanotubes that make dandy loudspeakers. The speakers are based on the "thermo-acoustic effect": when an electrical signal is run through the thin film, it heats up and cools off in pace with the signal variations, and the changes in temperature produce sound waves. The beauty of the scheme is that the nanotube thin-film speakers don't require coils, which means they can be very thin. The drawback is that nobody knows how to produce carbon thin films on an industrial basis yet. Research continues.



* WATCHFUL EYE: As discussed previously in these pages, modern video security systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, able to notice the behaviors of shoplifters and even ordinary shoppers. As reported in THE ECONOMIST ("If Looks Could Kill", 25 October 2008), those working on video surveillance technology believe they can accomplish more, to the point of picking out people in a crowd who are up to no good.

Science fiction? To be sure, much of the work in this field is experimental, but according to Charles Cohen -- boss of Cybernet Systems in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a company working with the US Army Research Laboratory -- claims that present technology is very good and is being actively used at some security checkpoints. Human gaits, for example, can hint at people's intentions; and they can reveal if a subject is carrying a hidden weight, such as an explosive vest. Surveillance systems can also incorporate context in picking out anomalies. It isn't unusual to loiter around a bus station, for example, but it is unusual to loiter in a stairwell; it is similarly unusual for someone to simply drop a package off at some location where package deliveries are not normal. The US Air Force Research Laboratory is working with the Ohio State University in Columbus to develop a system with such capabilities.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is even developing a surveillance system that can read facial expressions, or more accurately what are called "micro-expressions" that flit across a person's face for an instant. About 40 micro-expressions have been characterized. Terrorists are trained to conceal their expression, but it is hard to conceal micro-expressions, and in fact attempting to conceal them can enhance them.

Of course, such systems do not actually identify threats; they simply allow subjects of interest to be picked out to be given a closer looking-over. The rate of "false positives" -- singling out people who are perfectly harmless -- is a concern, all the more so because subtle behavior can change greatly depending on ethnicity and nationality. Work has been done to incorporate cultural profiles into visual security systems in order to reduce the number of false positives. The DHS is also experimenting with remote measurement systems that can track skin temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, blood-flow patterns, and perspiration from several meters away. Tests of this system with groups of experimental subjects in which some of the subjects were asked to try to smuggle a weapon past it demonstrated a positive ID rate of weapons-carriers of 80%.

That still means one out of five fingered by the system was a false positive. To be sure, the system is experimental and being improved, and simply arresting people who look suspicious to a surveillance system isn't going to fly. However, it still means a lot of people who are minding their own business may end up being hassled for no good reason. Critics point out to the long and bad history of "lie detectors", which have a notoriously high rate of both false positives -- fingering the innocent -- and false negatives -- giving the guilty a clean bill of health. Surveillance systems designed to pick out the suspicious among public crowds are going to need to be very thoroughly tested and demonstrate high effectiveness before much faith can be placed on them.



* ELECTRIC TRUCKS: There's good deal of fuss being made these days over plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles. As reported in an article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("Our First Electric Cars ... May Be Trucks" by John Voelcker, July 2008), the emphasis has been on passenger vehicles -- but some advocates believe that trucks are a better bet over the short term.

For example, two British firms are planning to set up assembly plants for medium-duty purely electric trucks. As it turns out, urban delivery trucks have usage patterns that fit electric operation very well -- predictable routes covering about 160 kilometers (100 miles) a day, a range compatible with battery power, and operating out of a central facility where a support infrastructure can be set up.

In fact, older Britons will remember the three-wheel electric floats that used to deliver milk through London. The manufacturer of the floats, Smith Electric Vehicles, is still around, and is preparing to introduce mid- and large-sized electric trucks to the US market, modifying stock Ford-built trucks to an electric configuration. A new UK company, Modec LTD, is also planning on getting into the US electric truck market, though Modec is designing their own electric vehicles. Both companies plan to perform production in the US to avoid the infamous "chicken tax", a 25% duty on imported light- and medium-duty commercial vehicles imported into the USA. The duty got its odd name from a dispute over the export of frozen chickens from the US to Europe in the 1960s, and despite trade normalizations it remains in effect.

electric lorry

Both private fleets and utilities are extremely interested in electric trucks and willing to buy into them in a big way, but Modec has encountered some difficulties in the course of pilot projects. A Modec official says that potential customers should not underestimate the challenges of installing the necessary infrastructure, and in particular not to trust existing in-house electricians and mechanics with taking care of the electric truck fleet until they have been properly trained -- mechanics, not too surprisingly, had a dangerously weak understanding of safe electrical practices.

* A sidebar to this article suggested that the move towards electric vehicles may have some unexpected benefits. Although electric vehicles have been the driver for development of lithium-ion batteries, once the performance versus cost reaches a certain level, such batteries will become attractive for both homeowners and electric power utilities. Homeowners could generate their own electricity with solar panels during the day, store it in a battery system, and then use it at night; they could also tap power when necessary off the grid at off-peak times, using smart meters that obtain the proper time schedules from power utility computer servers. Much larger battery systems could be used at power generation stations to store power at slack times, for delivery at peak times. In any case, enhanced demand for lithium-ion batteries for such "load balancing" will help drive the market, presumably leading to better batteries at lower cost.

* IMPROVED PISTON ENGINES: An article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Old Motor Roars Back", 16 August 2008) pointed out that while much effort is being put into electric vehicles, the automotive piston engine continues to be refined. Modern piston engines feature such advanced technologies such as electronic fuel injection, which meters fuel precisely to the engine cylinders; and variable-valve control, in which the cylinder intake and exhaust valve sequence is altered to improve efficiency. Valeo, a French automotive supplier, has now introduced an "e-Valve" system that replaces the traditional pushrod scheme with electronic actuators that can be computer-controlled, permitting even greater flexibility.

Superchargers -- blower systems that concentrate airflow into an engine -- are also being explored for advanced piston engines. They're nothing new, having been around since before World War II, though they tend to cause stress on engines. Modern engines are durable enough to take them in stride, and the use of a supercharger could cut the size of an engine by a third, resulting in better fuel economy. A supercharger obtains drive directly from the engine; the turbocharger, once known as a "turbo-supercharger", does the same job but is driven by a turbine in the exhaust flow, extracting a bit of energy from the engine that would otherwise simply go out the tailpipe.

The new generation of advanced piston engines will use fuel injection, improved valve control, and supercharging / turbocharging to provide two-cylinder engines with the power capability of a four-cylinder engine. Such engines could be used to drive small cars directly, or could be used in "serial hybrids" to run an electric generator for a pure electric drive system. Daimler of Germany is looking at a four-cylinder engine for larger cars that could operate on either a Otto cycle, like a conventional automotive engine, or a compression-fired Diesel cycle, depending on driving requirements. Electric vehicles are sexy, but there's plenty of life left in the piston engine yet.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I've been trying to get back on a regular work schedule but from 2007 I got backlogged on a lot of picky little things and I've been swamped trying to clean them out -- one big thing was getting all my photos properly indexed, a suffocating job, I index them when I take them now so they don't stack up on me like that. I'm making progress on the pile, it's slowly draining away.

Anyway, one of the picky tasks was to go through my pile of old DVDs and books and sell them off via Amazon.com. I do this once a year, but this year I got a surprise when I found out that Amazon had adjusted their sales system. The trick is that they charge a few dollars just for listing a product (if it sells) and then add a commission on top of that -- which runs to 15% for DVDs. The end result is that if I sell a DVD for $5 USD they charge about $3.10 USD, though they do tack on $2.98 USD for shipping. If I sell a DVD set for $50 USD, they charge about $9.00 USD.

I was a bit startled at this. I wondered if eBay was any different, but the sales system was about identical there. After getting over initial discouragement, I went ahead with it anyway, and despite the hefty gouge, I ended up making more than I thought I would. I did hold $5.00 USD as my bottom limit, however, and at that level my only real objective was disposal of the item. Given about a dollar for packing material, the net at that price was only about a dollar. I made my final trip to the post office to ship the items off on the day before Thanksgiving, having got rid of most of the stuff. I canceled the sales listings for the rest, and now that item's been checked of the task list for the year.

* I was tracing back hits on my website and found a link to a forum dedicated to "Maschinen Krieger (MK)". Say what? It turns out that MK defines a series of sci-fi model kits whose general style was defined by Japanese artist Kow Yokoyama back in the 1990s. The background story for the series is that there was a nuclear war on Earth in the 29th century that destroyed civilization; after a few decades the planet was re-colonized by the Galactic Federation, but tensions between the colonists and the government set up by the Federation led to a rebellion.

Maschinen Krieger

The MK model series focuses on the weapons used in the conflict. They are heavily biased toward "mecha" -- powered armor and "giant robot" type weapons -- but while traditional Japanese mecha tend to have a cheesy colorful samurai appearance, MK mecha are highly functional; tend toward the gritty and beat-up, the usual appearance of weapons that have seen substantial combat use; and have at least a flavor of the "Ninth German Reich", though swastikas don't seem much in evidence. I learn yet more useless things every day.

* In even more useless information news ... I consider myself a student, if not necessarily an expert, of the lunatic fringe, and was a bit surprised to find out that I hadn't heard of "Dr. Gene Ray" and his "Time Cube" concepts. Tracing back to the Time Cube website I found:


Humans are evil to worship singularity of 1day education, ignoring Nature's Harmonic Cubic Antipodal Creation. Academic singularity is as evil as God singularity evil.

You have not the mentality to comprehend the simple math of Cubic antipode creation, for at about age 6, your parents gave your 2 opposite antipode brains to Big Brother academic hirelings, to clone thought to serve evil singularity brotherhood -- destroying Cubic families, villages and tribes. Creation is by opposites, opposite hemispheres and opposite sexes -- not queer singularity.

Why do you worship a queer 1 day God? Are you content as a singularity queer? Einstein was singularity stupid, and you are singularity stupid. "Born Cubic, THINK CUBIC", you rotate a 4 corner stage life. Singularity educated humans are not intelligent. The universe does not exist, except as opposites - with a zero value existence. Add the opposites together and the universe ceases to exist.


I edited this down a bit -- it didn't lose anything in the process. It seems that Ray's work is well-known and often parodied. Apparently somebody wrote a program that constructs Time Cube verbiage at random and it is hard to tell the difference from the, uh, real thing. Ray is apparently accused of being racist and homophobic, but that might be reading signal into noise.