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DayVectors

feb 2012 / last mod sep 2016 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: future flight survey, Iranian saber-rattling, DNA nanotech, human computing in the 21st century, paper from elephant dung, climate change as a political nonstarter, origami engineering, microfinance limitations & village savings and loan, the war against cholera, password limitations & games for login ID.

banner of the month


[WED 29 FEB 12] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2012
[TUE 28 FEB 12] COMPUTING THE OLD-FASIONED WAY
[MON 27 FEB 12] DNA NANOTECH COMING OF AGE (1)
[FRI 24 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (6)
[THU 23 FEB 12] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 22 FEB 12] EXACTLY WHERE DID YOU GET THAT PAPER?
[TUE 21 FEB 12] THE BEST IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD
[MON 20 FEB 12] UNRULY IRAN (3)
[FRI 17 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (5)
[THU 16 FEB 12] SPACE NEWS
[WED 15 FEB 12] ORIGAMI ENGINEERING
[TUE 14 FEB 12] MICROFINANCE RECONSIDERED
[MON 13 FEB 12] UNRULY IRAN (2)
[FRI 10 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (4)
[THU 09 FEB 12] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 08 FEB 12] THE CHOLERA DEMON
[TUE 07 FEB 12] PASSWORD PROTECTION? / ARE YOU HUMAN?
[MON 06 FEB 12] UNRULY IRAN (1)
[FRI 03 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (3)
[THU 02 FEB 12] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 01 FEB 12] ANOTHER MONTH

[WED 29 FEB 12] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2012

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2012: As discussed by an article from TIME Online ("Leon The Lip" by Mark Thompson, 23 February 2012), after the low-key but hard-nosed leadership of Robert Gates as secretary of defense in both the Bush II and Obama Administrations, his successor Leon Panetta comes across as a little more flamboyant. On 1 February Panetta commented that the USA wanted to hand over responsibility for combat operations across all of Afghanistan to Afghan troops sometime in 2013, well before the planned US departure by the end of 2014 -- and then informed a reporter that Israel might strike Iran as soon as this summer. The White House was not happy with such directness, President Obama commenting: "I don't think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do." Obama made it clear that diplomacy was the "preferred solution".

Those who know Panetta were hardly surprised about his willingness to shoot from the hip. The 73-year-old defense secretary is a long-time Washington DC hand, having spent 16 years in Congress rising to Budget Committee chairman, and then became the rare Democrat to serve in four Cabinet jobs: budget director and chief of staff for Bill Clinton, CIA Director and now Pentagon boss for President Obama -- the first Democrat to take the seat of defense secretary since 1997.

SecDef Panetta with Chairman JCS Mullen

Panetta may be outspoken in his "Leongua franca", but he also has an unusual depth of experience. That experience also includes service as a junior Army officer, and he communicate with the military in their language. He told a group of airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on 17 February: "I've been in hearings for the last three days. Shit, I think I should get some kind of award going through that crap." Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants to California, likes to refer to Army brass of Italian descent as "spaghetti generals".

Panetta's outspoken nature causes him troubles on occasion, but he is rarely very contrite. At he commented in his Pentagon swearing-in session: "There was some talk here of trying to put a seven-second delay on the microphones for the ceremony. But I can't imagine why the hell that would be necessary."

The necessity remains to be seen. Panetta is faced with winding down the war in Afghanistan, hopefully in a way that accommodates long-term American interests; continuing the war against Islamic terrorism, with Panetta now working on the military side of the effort instead of on the CIA side; confronting threats such as Iran and North Korea; and coping with a tight military budget. Panetta's got a very tough job, and it's too early yet to know if his personal style is a good fit for it.

* To absolutely no surprise, after Barack Obama revealed his full birth certificate to the public last year, as reported by THE ECONOMIST's online blogs, the "Birthers" who have been making a fuss over the matter have continued on track without a hiccup. Obama's right to stand on the ballot has been challenged in at least six states, to be shot down in flames each time. Michael Malihi, an administrative court judge in Atlanta, Georgia, examined the claims that Obama had been been born in Kenya and that all his citizenship paperwork was fraudulent; he replied that he found "the testimony of the witnesses, as well as the exhibits tendered, to be of little, if any, probative value, and thus wholly insufficient to support Plaintiffs' allegations."

Referring back to practical precedent, most significantly the fact that a half-dozen previous presidents of the USA had one or two foreign-born parents, as well as earlier decisions against the Birthers, Judge Malihi determined that Obama was qualified as a US native to stand for election in Georgia. The actual decision was up to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, but on the recommendation of Judge Malihi Kemp simply rubber-stamped it. End of story? Of course not. Judge Malihi subpoenaed Obama to appear in his court, with the White House unsurprisingly calling his bluff: You think a low-ranking judge can order the President of the United States to jump through hoops for such a frivolous case? Think AGAIN.

The Birthers crowed over Obama's "contempt for the law", but to do anything about it, Judge Malihi would have to escalate through the trial courts, and the likelihood of other judges taking him any more seriously than the White House did is slight. The Birthers never say die; when confronted with the fact that there were earlier presidents that had foreign-born parents, they "move the goalposts", attempting to invoke incomprehensible technicalities in Obama's case, for example selectively and erroneously invoking an obscure 1875 Supreme Court ruling, MINOR V. HAPPERSETT. The courts don't buy it, there being nothing there to buy, but no worries; the Birthers just shift the goalposts again.

Given that the Birthers have absolutely no chance of being taken seriously by a court, they have to be regarded as basically harmless if certainly annoying, little more than a much too easy target for heavy-handed political cartoons. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has unambiguously rejected Birther claims, and incidentally also unambiguously rejected claims that Obama is a "Marxist".

Alas, there's a component among the Republican voter base that regards sensibility as a character fault. How seriously Birthers are really taken among even among ultra-conservative Republicans is hard to say, but no matter; conspiracies don't die, but they do fade away, slowly losing altitude until they finally disappear under the radar.

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[TUE 28 FEB 12] COMPUTING THE OLD-FASIONED WAY

* COMPUTING THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY: There was a time before the modern era of silicon electronics when calculations were done by hand, the only aids available consisting of slide rules, adding machines, and the like. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Return Of The Human Computers", 3 December 2011), for decades heavy-duty number-crunching jobs were performed by hiring a brigade of people to work as "computers". The computers didn't have to be math wonks, they just had to be able to do simple calculations, with the overall task being broken down into small elements, then parceled out to members of the computer team.

human computers at NACA Dryden

In 1937 the US government, looking for ways to give people jobs, set up a computing facility in New York City that would ultimately have 300 computers on the payroll. They worked on generating tables of values of math functions; more generally, computing projects calculated ballistics trajectories, processed census statistics, and charted the course of comets. It wasn't until the 1960s, when electronic computers began to proliferate, that the human computer finally died out. However, the electronic computer is reviving the human computer, updated to the era of internet crowdsourcing to reach scales and capabilities beyond those of the pre-digital age of human computers.

The concept has been discussed here, last in 2008. There are some tasks that humans can perform much better than machines, and the internet provides global reach to allow tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to contribute. In an experiment published in 2011, human computers were used to construct encyclopedia entries. Aniket Kittur and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, created software, known as "CrowdForge", to manage the process. CrowdForge hands out tasks to online workers, contacting them via "Mechanical Turk", an outsourcing website run by Amazon.com. The workers send their work back to CrowdForge, which assembles their output into surprisingly readable results.

A number of US startup companies are working along similar lines. CastingWords breaks audio files down into five-minute segments and sends each out to a transcriber. Each transcription is automatically passed to other workers for checking; once checked, an electronic computer assembles the segments and returns the finished product to the customer. CloudCrowd uses a similar system to perform human language translation.

In some cases, humans simply provide backup for machines. An app named "oMoby", produced by IQ Engines, can identify objects in images snapped by iPhone users. First it applies object-recognition software, which doesn't work well for targets shot in poor lighting or from an unusual angle. When the software comes up zeroes, the image is shipped out over the internet for a human to identify. The scheme generally gives an answer in less than a minute.

In the pre-digital era, managing a team of human computers to parcel out tasks and assemble the output was a laborious job, often performed by mathematicians. Given the scale of internet-based human computing, assembling the piecework into a whole by "hand" would be impossible today, and systems like CrowdForge do the management automatically. The algorithms supporting such systems are relatively simple-minded at present, and so there's a lot of room for improvement. Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft's research labs in Redmond, Washington, envisions a future in which algorithms coordinate a network of human workers, sensors, and electronic computers. For example, if a child goes missing, the system would send out volunteers on search missions or to ask contributors to examine CCTV footage for sightings. The system would also trawl local news reports for similar cases and integrate the information being returned by all its elements.

Sounds extremely whizzy and a long ways from hundreds of people working on math tables, but David Alan Grier, a historian of computing at George Washington University in Washington DC, says that the people who directed computing projects in the old days put a lot of thought into them, and they had plenty of good ideas that can be profitably mined today -- for example, how to break a complex calculation into sub-tasks independent of each other. Greer encourages modern researchers to look into what was done way back when and not reinvent the wheel: "There are all sorts of hints in the old literature about what's useful."

* ED: The reference to math tables above no doubt seems obscure to most readers below a certain age. Those above that age recollect with a certain appalled fascination how technical texts often had tables of, say, values of trigonometric functions or logarithms. Values of logs that fell between table entries had to be approximated by linear interpolation; imagine the relief when the day came when one simply punched a value into a calculator and pressed the "log10" key. I visualize the look on the face of someone who never saw such tables when told how people used to do things back in the Stone Age.

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[MON 27 FEB 12] DNA NANOTECH COMING OF AGE (1)

* DNA NANOTECH COMING OF AGE (1): As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("DNA Nanotechnology Grows Up" by Robert F. Service, 3 June 2011), three decades ago an X-ray crystallographer named Ned Seeman of New York University in New York City started thinking about using the DNA molecule to fabricate nanostructures. DNA -- deoxyribonucleic acid -- normally provides coding for the genome, defining protein structures and providing other information required by organisms using a double chain of four nucleotide "bases" -- adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, usually just referred to as A, T, C, and G, with A on one chain paired to T on the other and C paired to G. Seeman perceived that the selective bonding between DNA bases could be used to link DNA chains into tinkertoy structures, with him and his colleagues initially fabricating a cube out of DNA strands in 1991. Seeman submitted a paper to SCIENCE and had it promptly tossed back at him, a reviewer commenting: "Where's the biology?"

Following Seeman's pioneering cube, other DNA nanotechs have gone on to create more elaborate DNA nanostructures, only to run into the same reaction: "Gee, that's cute. What good is it?" Fortunately, practical applications of DNA nanotech are now beginning to emerge. Says Andrew Tuberfield, a physicist at Oxford University in the UK: "We're still playing around, but we've gotten good enough that we can do some interesting things."

* Seeman's work on DNA nanotech actually did start out with a practical goal. He was trying to perform crystallographic studies on proteins, but some proteins simply do not form orderly crystals: "I was confronting this fatal progression of no crystals, no crystallography -- no crystallographer."

Seeman got to wondering if DNA could help out. Stereotypically, the bonding in DNA involves one half-chain linking to a mirror half-chain -- but Seeman also knew that during cell replication DNA could unzip, with a half-chain linking to other DNA molecules and forming a branching structure. Researchers had realized they could tweak DNA to form branches with four arms, six arms, or as many arms as he wanted. As the story has it, Seeman was drinking a beer in a bar when he visualized Maurits Escher's woodcut DEPTH, which depicts flying fish in a neat infinite three-dimensional formation. It was a vision that appealed to a crystallographer, and from it Seeman thought of creating a 3D lattice of DNA strands that could trap proteins in its cells for examination by X-ray crystallography.

DEPTH & DNA cubes

Seeman and his colleagues announced the concept of DNA nanotech to the world in 1982, but getting it to work was troublesome. One task was to figure out how to build double-strand DNA with single-stranded "tails" that could link up together; another was to figure out how to form mechanically stable structures with DNA, the strands normally being floppy. The research team gradually began to assemble simple figures, leading to the 1991 cube. By 1998, they were able to synthesize extended two-dimensional arrays with DNA. However, even building simple structures required a lot of effort, made all the more difficult by the limitations of available DNA synthesis machines.

* That changed in 2006 when Paul Rothemund, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology, and his colleagues created what they called "DNA origami". Their experimental subject for developing the scheme was a known 7,000-base genome for a virus:


DNA smiley face

A smiley face built of DNA might not have helped the image of DNA nanotech among those who don't take the work very seriously, but those interested in the field promptly saw that DNA origami had changed the game radically. Instead of painstakingly assembling DNA nanostructures from small fragments of DNA, they could assemble structures with tens of thousands of base pairs, and with the position of every base pair precisely known. Other research groups have since figured out how to assemble 3D nanostructures with DNA origami, and even generated computer-aided design programs to automate the task. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 24 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (6)

* FUTURE FLIGHT (6): The notion of a hypersonic transport leads naturally to visions of spaceplanes -- reusable vehicles capable of putting payloads into orbit. The idea is very far from new, with the US space shuttle showing just how hard it is to develop a practical reusable launch vehicle (RLV), but studies continue to be churned out. A recent Boeing study envisions a two-stage concept, involving a large delta-wing carrier aircraft, powered by eight Mach 4 turbofans, with a piggyback dartlike second stage, powered by twin "rocket-based combined cycle (RBCC)" engines with supersonic combustion ramjet ("scramjet") and rocket propulsion modes.

The basic configuration is very old, though the technical details are modern. The same can be said of the Skylon "single-stage to orbit (SSTO)" RLV being promoted by Reaction Engines LTD of the UK, also based on RBCC propulsion. One wishes them the best of luck while recognizing that the past track record of RLVs has been largely characterized by disappointment. SSTO has always been a particularly hard sell, analysis usually showing that such a vehicle would need to have an extraordinarily light structure, presumably made of unobtainium. It seems realistic to look forward to a two-stage RLV, initially with an expendable second stage, for putting light payloads into orbit, as envisioned under the Air Force's "responsive space" initiative, but even that's not flying just yet.

USAF 2-stage RLV concept

More modestly, there's the notion of launching a booster from a more or less conventional aircraft. That idea has also been around from the beginning of the Space Age, but the only operational system to result so far has been the Pegasus booster built by Orbital Sciences. While air launch has been promoted as offering low cost and convenience -- launches could in principle be performed all over the world -- so far the benefits haven't proven as substantial as hoped.

However, the perception seems to be that we really haven't got serious about the idea yet, and it still remains an attractive option. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" technology development organization, is now conducting research on air-launched boosters. DARPA, working with NASA, conducted a "Horizontal Launch Study (HLS)", reviewing past proposals along such lines. The total came to more than 150, going back to 1981 -- which is not encouraging in itself, but at least it shows the idea's been given plenty of consideration.

747 piggyback HLS concept

Several concepts for HLS were generated by the study, for example a booster carried piggyback on a Boeing 747. The boosters for this concept both looked like the Pegasus, with a similar flight surface arrangement; one of the boosters was substantially bigger than a Pegasus, with twin-liquid fuel stages, while the other looked like a Pegasus with four solid-fuel stages, but with a heftier first stage. The liquid-fuel concept could loft 5,700 kilograms (12,575 pounds) to low Earth orbit (LEO), while the solid-fuel concept could only put 2,070 kilograms (4,560 pounds) into LEO.

The solid-fuel concept was proposed as a demonstrator with operational capability, possibly launched by NASA's Boeing 747-100 based Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which is more or less out of a job with the end of the shuttle program. HLS appears to have been just a paper study to consider options, but DARPA is moving forward on an "Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)" program -- sensibly focused on a less ambitious target, 45 kilograms (100 pounds) to LEO for a million USD, all costs included. That cost target assumes 36 launches to amortize development costs, and flight rates of up to 24 a year. That seems ambitious, but given the considerable interest in small satellites not necessarily unrealistic.

ALASA envisions launch of a spacecraft within 24 hours of call-up, with the capability of selecting an orbit even after the carrier aircraft has taken off. Notional concepts envision a small booster carried by an F-15 or MiG-21 fighter or even a business jet, one of the program requirements being that it will use a "stock" aircraft with minimal modifications as a launch platform. No special dedicated facilities will be required at the base airport, either. Several startups have ideas along such lines -- for example "NanoLaunch", proposed by the Space Propulsion Group of Sunnyvale, California. NanoLaunch envisions a two-stage booster, powered by liquid oxygen and paraffin (candle wax). DARPA plans for multiple teams to each conduct a dozen tests in 2015.

Gulfstream III with smallsat launcher

* Although DARPA decided to think small for the time being instead of pursuing the HLS, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is not so restrained, working with aircraft designer Burt Rutan of the Scaled Composites firm to outdo the HLS.

Rutan has come up with what amounts to an enlarged version of his "SpaceShipOne" aircraft rocket carrier, the "Stratolaunch". Like SpaceShipOne, Stratolaunch will consist of a twin-fuselage aircraft, carrying a space launch vehicle under the wing section joining the two fuselages -- but Stratolaunch will be much bigger, with a span of 117 meters (385 feet) and a takeoff weight of 544 tonnes (600 tons), some 149 tonnes (164 tonnes) being the launch vehicle, a cut-down derivative of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster with wings that will be able to put 6,120 kilograms (13,500 pounds) into low Earth orbit. Stratolaunch will also be able to carry a cargo pod for more earthbound missions.

Stratolaunch will be built by Scaled Composites and will leverage off two used Boeing 747 jetliners purchased for cannibalization, with six 747 turbofans powering the new aircraft. It will be able to fly to a launch altitude of 9,150 meters (30,000 feet) and will have a operational radius of 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) -- though it will only be able to operate from runways at least 3.65 kilometers (12,000 feet) long, and where there are fueling facilities for the rocket payload. However, given the long range, the Stratolaunch carrier would have no problem supporting either equatorial or polar launches.

Stratolaunch carrier + airlaunch Falcon booster

First flights are expected in 2016, with orbital missions before 2020. That potentially includes crewed orbital flights. Rutan points out that air launch doesn't yield cost advantages greater than 10%, but given that spaceflight is expensive, that's a worthwhile goal. Given the past history of advanced launch vehicle concepts, it's prudent to wait and see. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 23 FEB 12] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: Vaccination has been controversial from day one, and sometimes even agitates those who accept that vaccines are a good thing. As reported by AAAS SCIENCE, the US National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) has stepped into controversy by recommending that an anthrax vaccine trial on children should go forward.

There's nothing new about the anthrax vaccine, it's been around for decades, and millions of Americans -- mostly military personnel -- have been vaccinated with it. It hasn't been used on children, however, and that leaves open doubts about the vaccine's safety and efficacy for youngsters. To be sure, vaccines for adults should generally work with children, but there's a question of dosage: some vaccines for adults work fine at the same dosage levels for children, for others that's unsafe, but too low a dosage may not be effective. One USBS staffer says: "The only way to know is to try."

anthrax vaccine safe for kids?

The problem is that there is no expectation of any of these kids being exposed to anthrax. Since all vaccine programs have some adverse effects -- usually negligible, but occasionally not so negligible -- that means balancing the fact that the vaccine won't do them any practical good, while it could do them some harm. However, what happens if anthrax attacks are performed on the USA? Can we leave the kids defenseless?

There was a similar issue a decade ago concerning trials of a smallpox vaccine on kids; it bogged down in concerns and never actually happened. However, the smallpox vaccine was known to be relatively risky, while there's considerable experience with the anthrax vaccine to show it's very safe in adults. The NBSB recommendation still does not amount to a "green light" for the trial, and given the controversy, the trial still may never get off the ground.

* The H5N1 strain of influenza, known generally as "bird flu", has been an ugly potential threat, but although it's killed a few hundred people over the world it hasn't demonstrated an inclination to be passed from human to human, only being picked up by people who worked with fowls. If it could be transmitted directly between humans, the result would be catastrophic, a global pandemic that could kill tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of people.

Two teams of researchers -- one at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the other at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam -- have now created strains of H5N1 that can be easily transmitted between ferrets, seen as good analogues for humans. It appears that the trick was performed by a combination of genetic modification and "selective breeding" of the influenza virus, but the details have not been published yet. That's because the US government intervened in late December and told science journals to clamp a lid on it.

It might seem irresponsible for researchers to go out of their way to create a killer plague, but they had a good reason to do so -- to get a step ahead of the day, if and when it comes, that H5N1 acquires the adaptation on its own. The research teams knew perfectly well that they were doing something dangerous, and so did it in high-level biohazard containment facilities. American authorities didn't see them as the problem; the worry was that if terrorists could figure out how to breed the deadlier H5N1 strain on their own, they would acquire a monstrous weapon of mass destruction. The research was suspended while the issue was examined.

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[WED 22 FEB 12] EXACTLY WHERE DID YOU GET THAT PAPER?

* EXACTLY WHERE DID YOU GET THAT PAPER? While we employ animal dung generally as a fertilizer, it does have other practical uses. As reported by Babbage, THE ECONOMIST's technology blogger, a Delhi-based paper merchant named Mahima Mehra uses elephant dung to produce paper. Mehra sells her paper, produced by her business partner Vijayendra Shekhawat, under the name "Haathi Chaap", Hindi for "Elephant Mark".

They stumbled on the idea during their visit to spectacular hilltop Amer fort at Jaipur in Rajasthan state. They noticed that the dungheaps left behind by elephants hauling tourists up to the fort had a strong resemblance to the raw fiber used in paper-making, and realized the dung might be a useful paper feedstock. It's not a completely new idea; paper producers in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, and even the USA have used elephant dung to make paper as well. Elephants don't chew, they just gulp down wads of vegetation; their saliva lubricates the fodder, helping to soften it for digestion, but like all heavy non-ruminating mammals, they have trouble digesting cellulose. Bacterial fermentation helps to break cellulose down in the digestive tract, but of elephants' average daily intake of 150 kilograms (330 pounds) or so of plant matter, about 60% passes through undigested.

Shekawat tinkered with the dung and found out it really was a great paper feedstock. The production process begins literally in his own backyard where, one morning each week, he dumps a truckload of dung collected from the roadsides. His family removes foreign objects such as chocolate wrappers and cigarette foils, and the dung is then washed thoroughly for about two hours in a large container. What remains is soggy straw. The washing water, which seeps into the soil, makes a good fertilizer. Next, the soggy substance is boiled for a few hours to disinfect it; hydrogen peroxide or caustic soda can also be used to kill bacteria, but they are environmentally more troublesome.

Cotton waste is then added to the mixture, which is beaten for a few hours, until the pulp resembles paper-mache. Alum is added to reduce the paper's tendency to absorb liquid, helping prevent ink blots. Flower petals are thrown in to enhance the product. The pulp is mixed again in large vats of water; a wire gauze stretched on a wooden frame, called a "deckle", is lowered into a vat, lifted out and left to dry. When it does, a uniform thin sheet of paper is left behind. The paper's slightly irregular edges indicate that it's hand-made, meaning it commands a premium price. The color of the paper depends on elephant diet: sugarcane yields an off-white hue, while during the monsoon, when pearl millet and sorghum are more readily available, the paper has a brownish tinge.

Getting the production process down right took some fiddling. A somewhat bigger difficulty was cultural prejudice; although Mehra has no problems with the dirty work, she says: "Brahmins don't touch dung. We had to look for people belonging to a different caste."

the blessings of Ganesha

Shekhawat's family members initially discouraged him in the endeavor, arguing that they might not be able to find him a bride -- but he ultimately managed to convince them that the task was an honor to Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god. The wise Ganesha is one of the more popular Vedic gods, revered as the "Lord of Obstacles", creating them for those who need to be restrained, while removing them for those in need of help. No doubt a grateful Shekawat made an offering to the noble Lord Ganesha.

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[TUE 21 FEB 12] THE BEST IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD

* THE BEST IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD: While the weight of opinion in the scientific community is that human greenhouse-gas emissions are warming the Earth, the wider public is not so impressed by global-warming scenarios. It's hardly surprising; a theoretical analysis isn't very persuasive, and people are always being given warnings of impending doom that often turn out to be exaggerated. In short, no matter how good the science is behind climate change, politically it's a hard sell, and like it or not, it's foolish to think it could be anything else. That leaves advocates with a choice: persist in futility, admit defeat, or find a better sales pitch than "the sky is falling" -- even if it is. As discussed by an article in THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Climate Proposal Puts Practicality Ahead of Sacrifice" by John Tierney, 16 January 2012), advocates are starting to realize that better sales pitches really are available.

Up to now, the call for heading off climate change has focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Roger Pielke JR of the University of Colorado at Boulder, sees this argument as, in itself, a nonstarter, since it attempts to contradict what he calls the "Iron Law" of climate policy: When there's a conflict between policies promoting economic growth and policies restricting carbon dioxide, economic growth wins every time.

Pielke's analysis shows that the Iron Law applies to the most environmentally correct European states; even as Europe pushed hard politically to reduce emissions, European emissions continued to increase. As Pielke says: "People will make trade-offs, but the one thing that won't be traded off is keeping the lights on at reasonable cost."

However, what if measures were proposed that provided immediate benefits, that were cost-effective on the face of it? An article published recently in AAAS SCIENCE by a collaboration of researchers in the United States, Britain, Italy, Austria, Thailand and Kenya made exactly such a pitch, targeting soot -- "black carbon" in the language of climate science -- and methane emissions.

Black carbon, poured out from diesel engines and in particular traditional cookstoves and kilns, has been blamed for a significant portion of recent warming in the Arctic. Snow ordinarily reflects sunlight, but when the white landscape is covered with soot, the darker surface absorbs heat instead. Methane, which is released by decay processes from farms, landfills, coal mines and petroleum operations, contributes to ground-level ozone associated with smog, and poorer crop yields. Methane is also a greenhouse gas that, measure for measure, is about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping the Sun's heat. The methane does decay into CO2 and water in a few decades, but it is disproportionately troublesome until it does.

After a careful analysis, the authors of the paper came up with the 14 most effective measures to slow climate change, such as encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves; building more efficient kilns and coke ovens; capturing methane at landfills and oil wells; and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often. These measures wouldn't halt climate change, but they would slow it down appreciably -- and most significantly, they would pay off in the short term.

Thanks to cleaner air, hundreds of thousands to millions of deaths would be avoided every year, while crop yields would increase by tens of millions of tonnes. Because people would be breathing cleaner air, 700,000 to 4.7 million premature deaths would be avoided each year. Thanks to improved crop yields, farmers would produce at least 30 million more tonnes of food annually. Captured methane would be used as a fuel. What's not to like?

According to Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at Columbia University, and the lead author of the paper: "The beauty of these pollution-control measures is that over five to 10 years they pay for themselves in the developing world. They slow global warming, but there are local benefits, too. If you make black carbon reductions in China or India, you get most of the benefits in China or India."

Ted Nordhaus, a founder of the Breakthrough Institute, which has endorsed similar measures, was very impressed by the AAAS SCIENCE paper: "This is what the post-Kyoto world will look like. We'll increasingly be managing ecological problems like global warming, not solving them. We may make some headway in limiting our emissions, but if we do so it will be through innovating better energy technologies and implementing them at the national and regional level, not through top-down international limits."

Even some conservatives who tend to oppose environmental initiatives are open to such an argument, though ironically many environmental groups are not. Environmentalists are inclined to see it as a cop-out, a means of dodging the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Shindell sympathizes, but points out that political realities make such a position an exercise in impossibilism: "We're at a complete deadlock on carbon dioxide."

If climate change is a problem that cannot be solved unless the entire world agrees on the solution, the effort is doomed, the problem is not going to be solved. The problem becomes much more manageable if it's not seen in such all-or-nothing terms, as a problem that can be solved in part on the basis of a broader rationale. As mentioned here before, a convincing case can be made for a sustainable future and a cleaner environment -- while there's no prospect of obtaining a workable consensus on climate change. That's not suggesting that the climate change issue is unimportant and should be swept under the rug, it needs to be considered; it's just that it's only part of a bigger story that still hangs together even if climate change is ignored.

The smart money seems to understand this very well, with the US government now leading an effort to push an agenda much like that outlined in the AAAS SCIENCE paper, this initiative being backed by Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden, and the United Nations Environmental Program. The best, as the saying goes, is the enemy of the good; all we can do is what is workable in the present and consider what better we can do in the future.

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[MON 20 FEB 12] UNRULY IRAN (3)

* UNRULY IRAN (3): In his actions against Iran, American President Barack Obama is engaged in a difficult balancing act of domestic and international politics. As discussed in an essay by THE ECONOMIST's rotating US commentator Lexington ("Running Out Of Moves", also in the 14 January issue), Republican presidential hopefuls have been blasting Obama's "timid" response, describing Iran as, in effect, a lunatic rogue state that only understands brute force. The sole naysayer has been Ron Paul, who expressed more concern about overbearing actions of Obama and the Federal government in the crisis, as well as Israel's "destabilizing" barely-covert nuclear arsenal. The other Republican candidates then lashed out at Paul as well.

Iran rattles the saber

It is true that Iran is dangerous and acting accordingly; that Tehran has blatantly disregarded all complaints about its nuclear program; and that so far the Obama Administration hasn't been able to deal with the Iranian quandary. However, calling Obama "spineless", unwilling to use force, doesn't square with his record to date, since under his watch America finally cut down Osama bin Laden, and US drones have been hammering Islamic terrorists from East Africa to Afghanistan. Obama has no problem with force when he sees the necessity for it.

The fact that Obama has been willing to talk to the Iranians could hardly be called "appeasement". After all, how many long talks did Ronald Reagan have with Mikhail Gorbachov, the man in charge of what Reagan called the "Evil Empire"? It certainly doesn't seem like Obama is any softy in his dealings with Iran, having pushed through increasingly tough sanctions. By all appearances, Obama is taking every step he can short of war -- or maybe even across the edge of that threshold, if acts of sabotage, assassination, and cyber assaults against Iran can actually be traced in part to the doors of the White House. Still, the only rational policy in this crisis to seek peace while being ready for war; Obama clearly realizes that diplomacy is preferable to fighting, and that diplomacy is necessarily going to demand patience.

Obama has said that "all options" are on the table, though some senior officials have said that bombing Iran would be futile and dangerous -- arguably true, but saying such things is not consistent with the application of pressure on pigheaded Iranian leadership. Obama was also uncertain in his response to the unrest in Iran following the disputed 2009 elections, being unsupportive of the protesters and slow to speak out against their suppression. To be sure, Obama would have been doing the Iranian protest movement no great favor by endorsing it, allowing it to be denounced as a tool of the "Great Satan" -- and the US government had no real leverage to restrain the suppression of the movement. Still, Obama couldn't have avoided seeming weak.

Iranian instability wasn't actually useful to short-term American interests anyway. A deal was being discussed in which Iran would ship 1.2 tonnes (1.3 tons) of low-enriched uranium overseas to be enriched enough for a research reactor, limiting the amount of bomb-grade material the Iranians could get their hands on in the short terms. However, during the demonstrations the deal was denounced by Iranian reformers, who called it a "sellout" to foreigners, derailing it. Turkey and Brazil worked to revive the deal in the spring of 2010, but Obama, having managed to put together a tougher sanctions regime, was by that time unwilling to backtrack.

That placed Obama in the position of being seen not as too soft but as too tough. Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council in Washington DC, believes that Obama's failure to accept the proposal from Brazil and Turkey was a lost opportunity, and suggests that America must not throw up its hands at the first sign of Iranian intransigence or congressional opposition, both of which are certainties. Unfortunately, any notion of breaking out of the long-running track of mutual hostility between the two countries needs to be taken with a grain of salt; as Parsi admits, after three decades of antagonism between the USA and the Islamic Republic, it is no longer a phenomenon, "it is an institution".

Until the US 2012 election is resolved, it is unlikely that Obama will step out in any new direction. It would be lunacy to deliberately seek war with Iran as an election ploy, as well as possibly disastrously counterproductive, so all Obama can do in response to the sniping of the Republicans is paint them as reckless. On the other side of that coin, Obama can't change direction from his current path without being denounced. Obama's only real option is to hold his course and his breath into 2013 and hope there's no explosion.

It may be out of his hands; the Israelis believe that once the Iranians have sequestered their enrichment centrifuges in a deep underground facility at Fordow near the holy city of Qom, the Iranian nuclear program will become invulnerable to direct attack. There have been suggestions in the defense blogosphere that once clear spring weather arrives, the Israelis will hit Iran hard. Obama has been counseling restraint, but will Tel Aviv listen? The Israelis have not been making agreeable noises on the matter.

Anyone who has ever investigated the maddeningly complicated diplomatic dance of US President Franklin Roosevelt's administration with Japan up to the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 can only find current events disturbingly familiar. The Roosevelt Administration was trapped in a cycle with a state that seemed almost insane from the viewpoint of Washington DC, with the White House continually stepping up pressure in hopes of changing Japanese behavior without causing a war. Roosevelt failed; the results were a disaster for the USA, a catastrophe for Japan. History can never precisely replay itself, but it is easy to think the Americans realize what's at stake. It is less certain that the Iranians do. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 17 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (5)

* FUTURE FLIGHT (5): After considering electric aircraft, it seems like an abrupt switch to wonder if there's a future for supersonic commercial aircraft. So far the concept's been a bust; the only two supersonic transports (SSTs) that reached service, the Anglo-French Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, were both commercial disasters. The SST was originally conceived in an era of low fuel costs; it hardly seems a good fit for the modern era of expensive fuel and fuel-economical aircraft.

An SST with a capacity of hundreds of passengers is an economic absurdity. Not only would aircraft operating costs be high, but it could only be useful for transcontinental flights, and using it as a bulk cargo carrier would be lunacy. Such limits would reduce production runs and further inflate the unit cost of the aircraft, which would likely be expensive in the first place due to its sophistication, high speed requiring engines that can tolerate high thrust for long periods and an airframe with heat-resistant materials. There is, however, a small customer base that sees time as money and would be willing to pay a steep premium for quick flights across the oceans -- meaning there is a potential market for a supersonic business jet (SSBJ) that could carry, say, 8 to 12 passengers. One could even envision SSBJs as an international component of an air taxi scheme, at least for customers willing to pay big money for a ticket.

Tupolev Tu-444 SSBJ

The idea of an SSBJ has come and gone over the past few decades, with proposals from aircraft manufacturers in the US, Europe, and Russia. One of the most recent manifestations being the Aerion SSBJ, the brainchild of Aerion Corporation of Reno, Nevada. The Aerion SSBJ is technically conservative, with a max speed of Mach 1.6 and a maximum capacity of 12 passengers; but it still maybe more than the market can bear in a time of economic hardship, and status of the program is unclear. No Aerion prototype has been rolled out.

Still, research on SST technology continues, if at a low level of funding. One of the big obstacles to an SST is that sonic boom prevents such aircraft from being operated over land, and so studies continue on SST configurations that reduce sonic boom to tolerable levels. NASA has conducted studies on a "Low Boom Experimental Vehicle (LBEV)", with Boeing and Lockheed Martin generating designs for low-boom production machines, while Europe completed a four-year High Speed Aircraft program in 2009 that concluded that an environmentally acceptable small SST was practical. Nobody envisions flight prototypes any time soon.

* While the prospects for putting an SST into service seem remote for the time being, theoretical studies are being conducted for even more ambitious hypersonic transports (HST). EADS has produced a concept for a "Zero Emissions HST (ZEHST)" that could carry 50 to 100 passengers from Paris to Tokyo in 2.5 hours. It would be fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, using turbofans to get up to Mach 0.8, then combined rocket-ramjet propulsion to get to Mach 4, with the rocket propulsion sustaining the aircraft at cruise speeds at the edge of space.

EADS LAPCAT A2

EADS engineers say ZEHST isn't an extreme technical challenge, not requiring any development of fundamental new technologies or use of "unobtainium" -- a material whose strength-to-weight ratio or other desired properties tends toward infinity, along with cost -- but even they don't see it happening before 2040. The European Space Agency has worked on a comparable design, the "LAPCAT A2", that would also used combined-cycle hydrogen propulsion to obtain Mach 5 speeds for transoceanic routes, such as Britain to Australia. Some have calculated that producing the hydrogen to perform ten flights a day would demand 20% of the UK's electrical power capacity. If we can't get a supersonic business jet into the air, who can think that we'll ever ride a hypersonic airliner? [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 16 FEB 12] SPACE NEWS

* January was a slow month for launches:

-- 09 JAN 12 / ZIYUAN 3, VESSELSAT 2 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Ziyuan 3" remote sensing satellite into Sun synchronous orbit. It had a launch mass of 2,650 kilograms (5,842 pounds), with a payload of an infrared spectrometer and three cameras, one each pointing forward, down, and to the rear, clearly for stereo imaging. The downward pointing camera had a resolution of 2.5 meters (8 feet). The launch also included the "VesselSat 2" smallsat from LuxSpace of Luxembourg, which had a launch mass of 29 kilograms (63 pounds) and was intended to relay ship-tracking information.

Ziyuan 3 / VesselSat 2 launch

-- 13 JAN 12 / FENGYUN 2F A Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Fengyun 2F" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. It had a launch mass of 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds). It carried visible and infrared imagers as well as a "space weather" payload. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 112 degrees East longitude.

Fengyun 2F in launch prep

-- 20 JAN 12 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 4 (USA 233) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 4" AKA "USA 233" geostationary comsat into space. WGS 4 was built by Boeing, being the 4th in a series of six WGS spacecraft, and based on the Boeing 702 comsat platform, with a launch mass of 5,895 kilograms (13,000 pounds). It was the first "Block 2" WGS, introducing an improved bandwidth capability, primarily to support aerial surveillance systems. The Delta was in the Medium+ (5,4) configuration, with a five meter (16.4 foot) diameter payload fairing and four solid rocket boosters.

-- 23 JAN 12 / PROGRESS 46P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Progress 46P AKA M-14M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was the 46th Progress mission to the ISS. It docked with the ISS Pirs module two days later.

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[WED 15 FEB 12] ORIGAMI ENGINEERING

* ORIGAMI ENGINEERING: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("'Origami Engineer' Flexes To Create Stronger, More Agile Materials" by Zeeya Merali, 17 June 2011), when civil engineer Zhong You was growing up in Shanghai, China, he never had much interest in the Japanese art of origami or paper folding. He didn't see much point in it and he wasn't good at it. Today You, now at Oxford University in the UK, is on the leading edge of the field of "origami engineering", investigating the possibilities of creased or folded structures made of rigid sheets of material. The concept is not all that new, having been originally considered in the 1970s for collapsible space structures such as solar arrays, but it hasn't really had a lot of impact so far. You hopes to change that.

You's lab at Oxford is littered with test items and interesting examples of folded structures he's discovered, such as compact folded bags and a can for a Japanese drink he picked up in Tokyo that features a diamond pattern. He says: "The drink is nasty, but the can made me think about what would happen if you put an origami pattern on a rocket."

Before coming to the UK in the 1990s, You had worked on naval systems at Shanghai University, working on conventional collapsible systems with hinged and telescoping elements. However, when he came to the University of Cambridge he met a fellow student named Simon Guest who was using origami principles to store space system structures. You then realized the potential of the origami paradigm: "Hinges and sliding parts can stick, especially when you need to open and close structures many times. Rigid origami creases are much more reliable."

It took another decade for You to really get started on origami engineering. Tinkering with origami concepts in a trial-&-error fashion proved unproductive, but on attending a mathematical conference in Boston on origami folding, he realized that design tools were within reach that could make something of the concept. One of his early projects was an origami surgical stent, a tube inserted into arteries to deal with blockages and aneurysms. Traditionally stents were built with a fabric-covered expanding wire scaffold, which could be inserted where needed and then opened. However, such a design is complicated; in the worst case, the fabric can become separated from the scaffold, rendering the stent ineffective. You designed an origami stent from a single material, constructed so that it could be inserted in a collapsed form and then snapped open.

The origami stent should be in trials soon. Guest, who continues to work on folding structures at Cambridge, independently from You, pointed out: "The synergy with space applications is clear: an object has to be deployed in an hostile environment, and any error can lead to disaster." Eric Demaine, who works on origami-based robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees the stent as a highly significant example of the capability of origami engineering.

Origami engineers have grand visions for what they think they can do with the technology, for example houses that can be easily reconfigured, just by folding and unfolding rooms. That's over the horizon, but You and his doctoral student Joe Gattas are taking a step towards that goal with the design of emergency shelters that can be transported as flat packs to disaster areas, where they can be easily set up without the use of complicated machinery that may not be available. Gattas thought of the idea during the recent sequence of floods in his native Australia: "People who have lost their homes need something more solid and comfortable, more homelike, than a tent." There is, Gattas admits, the challenge in making a flat-folding shelter that a user can figure out how to set up.

You also is very interested in packaging systems, having demonstrated a flat-folding grocery bag made of steel panels. His prototype shows how a rigid package, such as an open-top cardboard box, can be folded flat if it has the right crease pattern; at present, boxes have to be opened top and bottom to be stored flat. You says: "The packaging industry is the one place people have traditionally though deeply about paper-folding techniques, and this could really speed up factory assembly lines."

semirigid folding bag concept

You believes that origami engineering also has potential benefits for building stronger, lighter structures. His Tokyo drink can featured diamond skinning to make it "look pretty", but You believes that crease patterns could be used to build spacelaunch boosters and agricultural silos that are lighter and cheaper, but just as strong. Such large-scale structures are a long ways off, but in the short term he's working with automobile manufacturer Land Rover of the UK, etching origami folds into the cylinders supporting car bumpers, which You believes should improve their impact resistance considerably.

You still has a lot of convincing to do, origami techniques being unfamiliar to most potential users and coming across as toylike, not for serious work. However, there's an increasing body of theoretical and practical support for research into the technology. You got a particular boost in 2006, when he was invited to show off some of his gadgetry in a technology show at Buckingham Palace, with Prince Philip showing a keen interest in the display and asking You detailed questions. You says: "It was quite an honor." You admits that if his pitch for origami engineering might not work out, saying that if it doesn't he can still "set up business as a toymaker." But he doesn't believe that's how his work will end up: "Every day, there's a huge potential for an important discovery."

ED: I was interested in the comments about packaging, since it's something that people take for granted but which is not a trivial issue -- the goal being to ensure the security of a product from its shipment from the factory to its arrival at the buyer's residence or place of work, while doing so at the least cost and weight with the most convenience for manufacturing. I recall getting a vacuum cleaner some years back and being fascinated by the various ingenious pieces of folded cardboard used to pack the product to make sure it was secure from the time it left the door of the factory to come into the door of my house.

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[TUE 14 FEB 12] MICROFINANCE RECONSIDERED

* MICROFINANCE RECONSIDERED: The notion of using modern digital technology to provide financial services for the very poor in developing worlds has received considerable publicity over the past few decade, with "microcredit" schemes for small loans being particularly boosted. Economist Muhammed Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank -- the world's first microfinance institution -- in Bangladesh in 1976, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. However, as reported by TIME magazine, according to a new book titled DUE DILIGENCE -- by David Roodman, a fellow at the Center For Global Development in Washington DC -- a close examination of microcredit suggests that it's an ineffectual tool, doing some good in some cases while doing harm in others. Roodman writes: "On current evidence, the best estimate of the average impact of microcredit on the poverty of clients is zero."

Roodman examined hundreds of cases over three years of study and found they were overpraised. Advocates point out that the repayment rate on the microloans is very good, but that's because the pressure to repay is so strong. In Bangladesh, one researcher found women frantically borrowing money from their equally poor relatives or being forced to give up basic necessities in order to repay their microloans. Many microfinance schemes are set up to deal with operating through borrowers' groups, in which each member is responsible for carrying the unpaid loans of others, and so defaulting means angering other members of the group. Roodman talks of cases where "people come and take their roofs, flashlights, everything."

Another problem, according to Roodman, is that the enthusiasm for microlending has brought in a good number of donors, creating what he calls "too much easy money from do-gooders". He feels microcredit undermines the incentive of the poor to save, and concludes that it adds risk to the lives of the very poor.

Roodman has been criticized for focusing on anecdotes instead of hard evidence, and it certainly seems that access to credit should be able to help poor people. Roodman agrees, his gripe being that microcredit has been pushed instead of microsavings, which he believes would help poor people more. Grameen Bank is now becoming more savings-oriented; Roodman feels that emerging phone banking schemes should be a big help. What role microcredit plays in the new mix remains to be seen.

* In related news, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Small wonder", 20 December 2011) described another microfinance effort that's catching on: village savings and loan associations (VSLA). Few dispute Roodman's assertion that poor people have reason to fear going into debt but they do need some sensible way to save money. The VSLA is intended to provide a savings mechanism for the poor.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) CARE International set up the first VSLA in Niger in 1991. The focus was on savings, not loans, with the scheme managed by members of the community and not professionals. Since then, CARE and other NGOs, including Plan International, Oxfam US, Catholic Relief Services and the Aga Khan Foundation, have promoted VSLAs. They have caught on in Asia and Latin America, with 4.6 million members in 54 countries.

A VSLA scheme typically involves a small group, maybe 15 to 30 people, who pool their savings. Each buys a share in a fund from which they all can borrow. All must also contribute a small sum to a social fund, which acts as micro-insurance; a member suffers a sudden misfortune will get a payout. Members select leaders and draft a constitution. The rules spell out how often the group will meet, what interest rates will be charged and what loans can be used for. At the end of a cycle, usually about one year, all the money accumulated through savings and interest is parceled out according to members' stakes, and a new cycle starts.

Zanzibar VSLA meeting

According to John Schiller, a microfinance expert with Plan International, the rules governing VSLAs are straightforward and easy to understand, increasing the confidence of participants. Returns on savings are very high, usually 20% to 30% a year. Borrowers typically pay interest rates of 5% to 10% a month on loans that usually have to be paid back within three months. The rates may seem steep, but they are set and benefit the VSLA collective. However, one might suspect that since the debtors are members of that collective, they would deeply regret defaulting on a loan.

So far, however, the VSLAs seem to be doing far more good than harm, and the collectives often become social and business hubs that take on new tasks, such as local agricultural development and health care. VSLA members are often enthusiastic about spreading the word, and the business is booming.

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[MON 13 FEB 12] UNRULY IRAN (2)

* UNRULY IRAN (2): In response to external pressures, Iran's government hasn't softened its tone, instead becoming more belligerent. Tehran has dismissed Western sanctions with contempt, and as discussed by a later article from THE ECONOMIST ("Iran's Warning", 7 January 2012), in late December the Iranian military conducted a ten-day military training exercise named "VELAYAT 90" to send a blunt message to the Americans and their allies. The exercise primarily displayed Iranian naval force, with videos showing boats sowing naval mines, launches of antiship missiles from warships and ground vehicles on shore, and firings of long-range missiles. In case anyone didn't get the hint, on 28 December Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian Navy, declared that closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carry from the Persian Gulf a fifth of all oil traded internationally would "be easier than drinking a glass of water".

Washington DC quickly responded that any attempt to close the strait would "not be tolerated" -- blunt talk by diplomatic standards, obviously meaning "try it and we'll shoot". The Iranians seemed hardly deterred, with Iran's top general, Ataollah Salehi, commenting a few days later on the departure of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS JOHN STENNIS from the Persian Gulf: "Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf ... we are not in the habit of warning more than once."

Persian Gulf conflict theater

The response to such threats has been American and European sanctions against Iran. Tehran has dismissed the sanctions, but Iran gets 80% of its revenues from oil exports, and the leadership is perfectly aware of the noose. The economic threat is backed up by a formidable military one -- not just in the form of the US Navy, with two carrier groups in place and a third one as possible option, but also from American troops that were withdrawn from Iraq, to then be stationed in Kuwait, facing Iran in the Persian Gulf battle area.

America's allies in the Gulf are not being passive either. Even as VELAYAT 90 was in progress, the Saudis announced a deal in which the country would obtain 84 of the latest model of F-15 Eagle fighters from Boeing, with 70 existing Saudi F-15s upgraded to a similar spec. The Saudis will certainly also obtain the latest smart munitions for those fighters from the Americans. Ironically, by forcing out the British diplomatic mission, Iran could have only made the prospect of military action against the country more likely, the British diplomats having effectively amounted to Western hostages in the event of an attack. That card's been thrown away.

It is true that Iranian saber-rattling is highly theatrical. Unless all of Iran's oil exports were halted by sanctions, the country would be embargoing itself by closing the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians also know they couldn't possibly handle the US Navy in a stand-up fight and they would suffer terribly. However, the Iranians do understand that they can make a hell of a nuisance of themselves through "asymmetric" warfare, and have accordingly invested in antiship missiles to be launched off warships and mobile ground launchers, fast speedboats, and miniature submarines. The principle is that the Iranians could throw swarms of their weapons at a US Navy battle group and at least some of them would get through, causing unacceptable damage to the Americans.

Iranian C14 missile boat firing NASR-1 missile

Add to that the sowing of naval mines, strikes on Gulf oil port facilities with ballistic missiles, and terrorist attacks by Iranian-backed groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and the Iranians would clearly be able to make a point. It would be at great expense to themselves, however; the Iranians cannot really win the game, all they can do is try to make sure the Americans can't win it either, and hope that threats deter the USA.

The difficulty is that such warlike behavior runs the risk of setting off the violence it is intended to prevent. The possibilities are illustrated by the events of 3 July 1988, when the US Navy cruiser USS VICENNES, escorting tankers in the Persian Gulf to protect them in the Iran-Iraq War, observed an aircraft coming in directly at the vessel from Iranian airspace. There had been confrontations between the US Navy and the Iranians, and the crew of the VINCENNES was jumpy; after failing to identify the intruder, it was judged to be an Iranian Tomcat fighter, and a missile was fired from the cruiser to blow the aircraft out of the sky. It turned out to be an Airbus 300 jetliner of Iran Air. All 290 on board were killed. If the current war of nerves is supposed to be a game, it's one being played for deadly serious stakes. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 10 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (4)

* FUTURE FLIGHT (4): Electric or hybrid electric aircraft propulsion, mentioned in a previous installment in this series, is still in its infancy, focused on light planes and powered sailplanes. It's not all that practical for the moment, pure electric machines not being capable of much more than a pleasant jaunt around the sky -- but advocates see it as potentially offering extreme fuel economy.

EADS has demonstrated the pure electric Cri Cri ultralight, a single seater with an endurance of a half hour, not much more than a fancy toy. However, the company has also demonstrated the hybrid E-Star, a Diamond Aircraft HK36 motor glider with a Wankel powerplant driving a generator to back up the electric system, providing at least as much endurance as piston power.

EADS Cri Cri electric ultralight

The E-Star is still not a working machine, but it wasn't intended to be, it's just a demonstrator. Due to the weight and low power density of current battery technologies, pure electric aircraft are unlikely to be more than toylike for the time being, but hybrids present an opportunity. Says an EADS official: "Our interest [in the E-Star] is in the integrated electric drivetrain, which we believe is scalable from small to midsize aircraft, and longer term to larger aircraft." Scaling up by a factor of ten is seen as easy; scaling up to a factor of 100 is not so easy.

Enthusiasts believe that hybrid technology is likely to become much more popular once appropriate subsystems are in commercial mass production. European electrical / electronic giant Siemens was involved in the E-Star project, with an eye towards development of those subsystems for sale. Such subsystems, however, are only part of the story for electric aircraft. Simply changing the drive system of an aircraft from an internal combustion engine to electric drive doesn't really take that much advantage of what electrics can do. They're much more compact than internal combustion motors and don't need fuel lines, just power lines, so they can be arranged to support highly efficient airframe configurations. Drag reductions of 10% to 20% are envisioned. Boeing has envisioned "SUGAR Volt" hybrid airliners that are far more efficient than contemporary turboprops.

Boeing SUGAR Volt hybrid airliner

As far as pure electric aircraft go, they may be able to reach beyond sport flying given improvements in battery technology, and optimists believe that lighter batteries with greater power density should be available in the coming decades. EADS has envisioned an all-electric airliner, the "VoltAir", saying it could be available before 2040. It would have twin containerized battery packs using battery technology with five times the energy density of current lithium cells. The batteries would power superconducting electric motors, kept chilled with liquid nitrogen, driving a ducted pusher contraprop system. On landing, the battery packs would be swapped out with fresh packs, with the used packs taken to a recharging facility for use by another VoltAir later. Boeing SUGAR Volt concepts have also toyed with the idea.

In addition, there's been tinkering for decades with electrically-powered aircraft driven by microwave or laser beams from ground stations. Nobody's ever done any more with it than flown small models, and it's not very efficient, with no more than a quarter of the power put into the transmitter system making it to the aircraft. For now, beamed flight power is seen strictly as a means of keeping drones aloft for extended periods of time. Concept have been floated for beaming power from satellites to aircraft, but for the time being such notions remain science fiction. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 09 FEB 12] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place in Las Vegas at the beginning of the year, with the latest gimmicks eagerly presented by their makers. One item wasn't exactly consumer gear, being a cop car for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department with an information system developed by defense-security industry giant Raytheon. Having a computer in a cop car is not such a big deal any more, but the Raytheon system networks the cars, with all cars providing their GPS coordinates so their situations can be displayed on a map. A cop can tag any location with its GPS coordinates to allow other cops on the network to check out a place where a suspect might have, for example, thrown a bag of dope out a car window.

Of course, the notebook computer in each car gives access to useful cop databases. The system also has a thumbprint input module that allows the cops to check out a suspect's prints against a print database. The cops are hoping for an enhancement in which businesses could voluntarily allow the cops to link into store or factory security cameras, ensuring that the cops know what hazards they're facing, or if there's just been a miscommunication and nothing is actually wrong -- charging in with guns drawn can lead to disastrous mistakes under such circumstances.

* As reported by THE ECONOMIST, much was made of 3D video entertainment after the release of James Cameron's AVATAR in 2009. As discussed here in 2007, cinemas jumped on board the 3D bandwagon as a savior, while consumer electronics manufacturers worked on 3D video tech for the home. There was some suspicion as the craze got underway that it would be just a replay of the 1950s fad for 3D movies, which was a flash in the pan. To be sure, modern 3D tech is much superior to what could be done in the 1950s, which was stuck with black-and-white -- but the 21st-century enthusiasm for 3D video went south just as rapidly. 3D amounts to a novelty that wears thin quickly, not doing that much to enhance the movie experience. I couldn't say I knew it would be a bust, but I can say that I'm not surprised, though a bit surprised at how fast it happened.

The new "big thing" in cinema is "MaxiVision48". Ordinary digital films these day typically have a frame width of 2,048 pixels, though a few such as DISTRICT 9 have a frame width of 4,096 pixels. MaxiVision48 has a frame width of 5,120 pixels, but more importantly it doubles the frame rate from the long-established 24 frames per second (FPS) to 48 FPS. We're used to watching 24 FPS in movies and don't notice a problem, but apparently the higher frame rate makes a big difference in viewing quality. Whether that will give the cinemas the shot in the arm they need is another question.

* For those of us who are swamped with trying to juggle a PC / Mac desktop plus an iPhone and an iPad, a Toronto-area firm named Matias has developed the "One Keyboard" -- which hooks up to the desktop like a normal keyboard, but switches to the iPhone / iPad with the push of a keyboard button. Function keys are "tuned" to work with either environment. It's a bit spendy at $100 USD, but it does have a two-port USB hub -- something I'd really like to see as fairly normal on keyboards as we get into the tablet era -- and a nice little docking station for an iPhone.

Matias One Keyboard

* A note in BUSINESS WEEK discussed the latest product of a British company named Futura Medical, which has developed an innovative new product: a condom featuring a dose of a drug named Zanafil. Zanafil is a nitroglycerine-based concoction; nitro is usually seen as an explosive, but it is used as a heart medicine, opening up blood vessels to increase blood flow. Incidentally, explosive experts who handle dynamite are prone to headaches because they absorb the nitro from the dynamite through the skin, dilating the blood vessels in the head. A condom that dispenses nitro has obvious attractions in its potential to increase potency -- one might consider it an exercise in boosting explosive yield.

All double entendres aside, the idea of a condom that enhances performance would be a big benefit beyond its utility to a user. Condoms are often seen as a nuisance; it is said they are not popular in Africa, the attitude being: "Why chew gum with the wrapper on?" A condom that is seen as a plus and not a negative would lead to increased usage, reducing unwanted pregnancies and, much more importantly, transmission of sexually-transmitted diseases, the condom being a very strong defense against such. There is the question of cost, and at the outset the Futura condom is likely to be too expensive for mass usage in poor countries where it could do the most good. However, it's a start, and in time the technology is likely to become cheaper and more widespread.

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[WED 08 FEB 12] THE CHOLERA DEMON

* THE CHOLERA DEMON: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Cholera & The Super-Loo", 30 July 2011), cholera, caused by the bacterium Vibriam cholerae, was one of the great scourges of the 19th century. It was actually not known outside of India until 1817, when it showed up in Russia, and then spread to the rest of the world. Patients afflicted by the disease suffer ghastly cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea, often dying of dehydration before their bodies can rally.

The bacterium is transmitted via water or food tainted with the effusions of the ill, a fact that was realized early on. Titus Salt, a Victorian wool baron from Yorkshire with utopian ideals, said of it: "Cholera most forcibly teaches us our mutual connection. Nothing shows more powerfully the duty of every man to look after the needs of others." Salt contributed to the effort to clean up Victorian cities, installing proper sewage systems and promoting hygiene.

cholera bacteria

Cholera is no longer a particular problem in developed countries. It shows up infrequently in such places, being not much more than an unpleasant nuisance, with use of disinfectants and bottled water preventing the spread of the disease when breakouts occur, and rehydration therapy generally ensuring the recovery of the afflicted. However, the World Health Organization estimates that there are 3 to 5 million cases of cholera around the globe every year, with the disease killing about 100,000 of those victims and inflicting agony on the others.

Cholera can be a significant problem in nations where the level of public sanitation is poor. Haiti has never had good sanitation, and the 2010 earthquake hardly helped matters; since October 2010, at least a quarter of a million Haitians have come down with cholera, which has killed thousands of them. The disease spread to the neighboring Dominican Republic, but that country has a more adequate public health infrastructure, with only 13,000 people infected and all but a handful surviving.

In Bangladesh and India, the river systems are loaded with cholera bacteria and other sewage-transmitted diseases -- cholera is aided by other bad actors, there being a range of other diarrhoeal diseases that kill about 1.5 million people worldwide a year. In South Asia, there are worries that climate change may raise water levels and result in the greater contamination of climate change. An oral vaccine against cholera is under trial in these regions; an Indian maker of such a vaccine says that they can get the cost to under $3 USD, cheap enough to be put into widespread use.

Africa is where cholera makes itself most dreadfully felt, with nine out of ten cases occurring there. Worst hit are Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Congo; an outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe that began in 2008 killed about 5,000 people. The disease has recently cropped up in the Congo, and there are worries that matters there stand to get much worse.

Activists have a range of tools for dealing with cholera and comparable diseases. Vaccines have already been mentioned; there's also been a push for hand-washing and other sanitation measures. One of the biggest parts of the effort has been focused on improving toilet systems. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has pledged to spend $266 million USD over the next five years on toilet initiatives.

As discussed here some years back, a typical developed-world flush toilet is not very practical for many locales in the developed world. Some 22 universities around the world are working from BMGF grants on new toilet technologies. The goal is to build a toilet that is rugged, easy to clean, self-sufficient in water and energy, and costs a user less than five cents a day. It's a big challenge, requiring investments in design, engineering, biochemistry, and microbiology. A better toilet does seem to be within reach; and the most optimistic think that the new tech will not only solve the problem of sewage-borne diseases, but will also make use of sewage as a useful resource.

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[TUE 07 FEB 12] PASSWORD PROTECTION? / ARE YOU HUMAN?

* PASSWORD PROTECTION? As discussed by WIRED Online, for decades computer users have had it hammered into their heads to use elaborate, unpredictable passwords, the more incomprehensible the better. Websites will provide "grades" that give a low score to anything that seems to make any sense. Two computer scientists -- Paul C. van Oorschot of Ottawa's Carleton University and Cormac Herley of Microsoft -- have now published a paper that suggests priorities have been misplaced, that password protection is being emphasized at the expense of more important issues. They write: "Users are bombarded with information on how to choose strong passwords. They receive a steady, though less extensive, stream of advice about phishing. As for keystroke-loggers, there is little beyond suggestions to run antivirus programs and keep software patched."

There is a legitimate basis for worrying about password security, since computers can churn through a long list of possible passwords, trying one at random until one comes up that works. Smart programs can exploit possible, or worse known, regularities in passwords to greatly simplify the search. However, while cracking passwords was certainly a real worry a few decades ago, it's less so now -- these days online accounts usually don't sit there idly if somebody keeps trying passwords, instead forcing a user to wait a while after a string of failed login attempts, or possibly running a user through a test to see if the right user's really there. Even if they don't take any particular effort to obstruct repeated attempts at logins, the fact that it takes a second or so for the login system to respond slows down an attack by that route to a crawl. Such "login throttling" effectively derails any "brute force" attack to crack a user's password, and renders hyperstrong passwords irrelevant.

Suppose we created a 12-character password using upper and lower case letters plus numeric digits; that would mean a brute-force search would have to test for 62^12 == 3.2E21 possibilities. Try to crunch through all of them at a rate throttled to once a second, it will take far longer than the age of the Universe. Now suppose we have a password created from four words out of a list of 250 words arranged in different orders; then we have about 250^4 == 3.9E9 possibilities. Obviously, the first password is much stronger, but it would still take over 120 years to try all the possibilities for the second password. Nobody's going to try when they've got more convenient ways of getting in. The stronger password is like putting ten thousand locks on a door when ten is neurotic, and people usually just try to get in through the back door anyway.

Herley has observed that many of the biggest and most heavily attacked commercial websites have very relaxed password policies and haven't had any real security problems, while government and academic sites that aren't under any major threat have draconian password policies. That's because such organizations don't worry all that much if they make users unhappy, while commercial organizations can't afford to do so. When hackers do get into accounts, it's rarely because they were able to guess the password; it's because they stole the passwords through some inside job or using key-logging malware.

In short, complicated passwords are no longer very relevant. Herley suggests that making them a pain is counterproductive, since users sink an excessive amount of time into setting up passwords and then have to jump through hoops when a password is forgotten; users may also adopt insecure methods to remember the password, along the lines of the infamous "post-it note on the computer display". There's been talk for a decade of developing more secure, automated login schemes, using smartcards or the like, but so far they haven't panned out, and in the meantime we're accumulating more and more passwords.

To be sure, people shouldn't use insecure passwords. One trick that hackers actually can make good use of is to accumulate a few thousand common and predictable passwords and run through the list, which doesn't take too much effort. The military has long known not to give secret projects codenames that have any relationship to the specifics of the project, and similarly users shouldn't come up with passwords that have anything visibly to do with themselves or the account being logged into. They also shouldn't use anything that anybody else might dream up, for example passwords based on lyrics of popular songs, or well-known cartoon characters. Selectively mixing in a few substitutions of numbers for letters -- "1" for "i", "2" for "z", and so on -- and selectively applying imaginative spellings to password elements helps, too. Users should also have unique and relatively tough passwords for critical sites, such as bank or stock broker accounts, and not reuse the same password created for casual accounts where there's nothing more important to steal than, say, an email address.

Herley and van Oorschot aren't saying that passwords are useless, they're just saying that there's no reason to overdo them, that research needs to be conducted on where to find a reasonable tradeoff between security and user-friendliness. Do we really need to bust our brains to come up with a password like "Jm0q845xxiN4" and then jump through hoops to make sure we don't forget it -- instead of just using "yamustbjok1n" or "jumpnhopnt0d5" or "headbustciti"? As long as it's not something easy to guess, does it really make any difference? We might even be able to have some fun with it.

* ARE YOU HUMAN? In related news, we're all familiar with the "captchas" used to validate that a human and not a "bot" is making an entry into a web page. We also know that the captchas are getting harder to use as the bots get smarter and more able to decipher them. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, a US startup company named "Are You A Human" has come up with a new idea as an alternative to captchas: ten simple games that any human can solve easily but give bots a headache. For example, one game features colored shapes bouncing around inside a box, with the user required to drag two red balls into a bin. Another features a pizza, with the user required to drag a few specified toppings onto it. To crack the game, a bot will have to be able to understand the instructions and then manipulate the game elements.

The Are You A Human games can be programmed to enhanced levels of difficulty for sites likely to be targeted by bots. The company plans to make money by developing advertising-oriented games. It's a clever idea, but Luis von Ahn, the inventor of captchas, thinks that the bots will quickly overpower the games. Captchas are the dominant validation technology right now, and von Ahn thinks they will remain so: "People don't like captchas, but they really do stop bots."

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[MON 06 FEB 12] UNRULY IRAN (1)

* UNRULY IRAN (1): It is not news to anyone that relations between Iran and the West, most significantly the "Great Satan" America, have not been friendly for a long time. The unfortunate news is that, of late, things have been taking a turn for the worse.

As discussed by THE ECONOMIST ("Did They Really Mean To Do It?", 10 December 2011), the current fuss began on 8 November 2011, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on Iran's supposedly "peaceful" nuclear program that described the program as not all that peaceful, marked by tests and studies that could only be intended for weapons development. An Iranian delegate to the IAEA promptly denounced the report, saying it was "unbalanced, unprofessional and prepared with political motivation and under political pressure by mostly the United States ... [the report is] a repetition of old claims which were proven baseless by Iran ... "

The report did stop short of declaring Iran was really working towards a Bomb, but only just. Despite Tehran's denials, the report led to increased diplomatic pressure on Iran, with the tensions provoking Iranian demonstrators to invade two British diplomatic compounds in Tehran on 29 November, trashing them and departing after a few hours. Nobody was seriously hurt.

The attack on the British diplomatic mission doesn't appear to have been orchestrated by the government. There was public enthusiasm in Iran over the action for a few days, but then the realization set in with the leadership that, in the face of an international perception that Iran was an out-of-control rogue state, Iranian actions reinforcing that perception were unwise. On 4 December, a senior cleric described the invasion as "illegal", and there was talk of putting some of the demonstrators on trial.

The damage has been done, however, and even if the embassy attack hadn't taken place, the 8 November IAEA report was one of the last straws for the international community. On 31 December, US President Barack Obama, backed by hefty majorities in Congress, signed into law sanctions that included barring foreign firms dealing with the Central Bank of Iran, which handles half Iran's oil transactions, from access to America's financial system. The intended effect of the new sanctions, which gives Obama some discretion over implementation, is to pressure countries such as Japan and China who are big purchasers of Iranian oil by giving them a choice between Iranian oil and access to US markets. In practice, Obama is unlikely to draw the noose tight right away, at least giving temporary waivers to major trading partners.

The Americans are not acting unilaterally. Following the embassy invasion William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, pushed for the European Union (EU) to impose an embargo on Iranian oil. Greece, Italy and Spain, the EU's biggest buyers of Iranian crude, asked for time to line up new suppliers; they were able to do so, and on 23 January the EU imposed an "unprecedented" oil embargo on Iran. British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement: "We will not accept Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran has so far had no regard for its international obligations and is already exporting and threatening violence around its region."

The EU also placed restrictions on Iran's central bank and in the trade of gold, precious metals and diamonds. Iran's neighbors in the Gulf certainly have no fondness for the Islamic Republic, making no secret of their irritation at Iranian actions and accusing Tehran of subversion. The Saudis promised to boost production to support customers cut off from Iranian oil by sanctions; the Iranian government made threatening noises in reply. The Iranian regime has few friends, Syria being unusual in its good relationship with Iran -- but Syria is currently racked by widespread revolutionary unrest, a scene that no doubt creates discomfort in Tehran. On 5 December a US diplomat, Robert Einhorn, said Iran was "becoming a pariah state".

The assault on the British diplomatic mission has raised fears among Iranian citizens that the country is going to be targeted by harsher diplomatic measures, with the ugly prospect of a war following behind them. Indeed, a low-level war appears to be in progress, as manifested by the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists -- four so far, the last being Mostafa Admadi Roshan, killed on 11 January 2012 by a magnetic mine that a passing motorbiker slapped onto his car. The sophistication of the assassination, like something out of a spy thriller, all but declared in big neon lights that a foreign intelligence service was behind it, with the Israeli Mossad being seen even in the West as the "prime suspect". The Americans made clear they "played no role" in the assassination. There was an explosion at a missile base on 12 November; the authorities said it was a accident, the Iranian press of course interpreted it as sabotage. A stealthy American RQ-170 drone was forced down in Iran on 4 December, it appears due to a technical fault.

Iranians show off RQ-170

Iranian nuclear refining centrifuges have also been plagued by malware in the form of the "Stuxnet" computer worm -- a very unusual species of worm that is designed to infect industrial "programmable logic controllers" built by the German Siemens firm, widely used by the Iranians. Retired US Air Force General Michael Hayden, formerly director of both the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) described Stuxnet in a speech as "incredibly precise", that it was "designed to trigger only in very carefully defined, discreet circumstances". It was not the work of some antisocial prankster operating on his own; there are unvalidated tales that a copy of an Iranian centrifuge was built at the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona as a practice target.

The threat from without is amplified by the rot from within. The turmoil in the streets of Tehran in 2009 that followed a disputed presidential election is no longer in evidence, but the repression that emerged in response is only getting worse. Tensions simmer, while allegations of official corruption aggravate them. The economy is a shambles, with inflation running at over 20%. Last year was a drought year, inflicting great pain on Iran's farmers as rivers ran dry.

There's also tension at the top, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, barely concealing their mutual animosity, presenting Iranians with a display of a government fighting itself instead of getting anything done. Ahmadinejad's term will run out in less than two years, but he appears to want to hang on. Khameni, however, has let it be known that he would like the elected office of president to be eliminated, replaced by a prime minister appointed by Parliament. When the time comes, there may be an exchange of blows. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 03 FEB 12] FUTURE FLIGHT (3)

* FUTURE FLIGHT (3): Airlines remain wedded to operational procedures refined over decades, generally working on the "hub and spoke" concept, with small airliners operating over short "spoke" routes feeding large airport "hubs" supporting long-range traffic. An alternative idea, the "air taxi", has repeatedly come and gone over the past decades, the vision being large numbers of small aircraft operating directly from airport to airport. For the moment the idea appears to have "gone", attempts to sell "very light jets (VLJs)" to support the market having proven such a bust that the term "VLJ" has all but disappeared from sales literature -- now they're just small business aircraft.

Diamond D-Jet / not a VLJ

Innovative aviation designer Burt Rutan, just recently retired from his Scaled Composites firm, believes the idea is not permanently dead. He points out that, in terms of door-to-door time, air transport isn't any faster than it was almost a half century ago: "Throw a dart at the map of the US and find any two locations and look at how long it took to get from one to another, and it will take you about the same time or longer than it did in 1961." The current air transport system is also under pressure from teleconferencing and other communications technology on one hand, which reduces if not eliminates the need to "be there", and from security and cost-cutting on the other hand, which makes air travel a paranoid and wearying experience.

Rutan says that air taxi schemes would have an edge by making travel easier and less unpleasant, with air taxis providing greater effective speed by traveling "from the nearest smallest airport to another small airport near where you want to go. There are thousands of smaller airports across the country and you could fly from those when you want, rather than on somebody else's schedule, and without having to use the gridlocked roads to get to those major airports."

Rutan concedes that intercontinental travel would still rely on jumbo jets flying from hubs, that the air taxi scheme is irrelevant on that scale. For those critics who say that the air taxi scheme means vast numbers of little aircraft flying around, Rutan replies, in effect: exactly, so what? "There are 13,000 taxicabs in Manhattan; if there were 5,000 the system wouldn't work, people would get frustrated ... so how do you have an on-demand air taxi system for the US? ... It would need around 10,000 to 12,000 aircraft to get up to this threshold. It would be done with very little non-revenue flying and insurance costs would be tiny, because the crew flying rate would be high and it would be a mature system ... [with] the potential to halve the door-to-door time."

Scheduling air taxi flights, which would have been cumbersome to the point of impossible a few decades ago, should be straightforward in an era of smartphone apps and cloud servers. The worse problem is trying to control the expanded air traffic, but even with tens of thousands of aircraft flying around, America's airspace is vast and the perceived difficulty of managing the swarms of aircraft is partly an artifact of the constraints of the current system -- the air traffic system is inflexible, being under centralized control and forced to converge at hubs. Rutan believes that modern technology greatly reduces the need for centralized control, with flight planning performed at will by cloud server systems, and aircraft equipped with comlinks and smarts to provide their own navigation and collision avoidance. In this view, the air traffic control system would simply identify and deal with aircraft not acting as "good citizens" instead of specifically telling them where they can and cannot go.

Libertarianism for air transport? Possibly, but Rutan believes it's an idea whose time is finally coming, saying that in the new era the airlines will "wither like the Greyhound buses did. If they're smart, they'll realize they're in the transportation business rather than the bus business."

* Although Rutan sounds radical, the European Commission is investigating a vision that in some ways is even more ambitious, through the "Personal Plane (PPlane)" effort. PPlane's concept is for increased use of small civil aircraft, in the 4 to 8 passenger range, for short-range flights as a more efficient alternative to ground transport.

The idea is, by intent, thinking out of the box; few would think that on the face of it air transport would be more economical than ground transport for short-haul service. However, given aircraft designed for economical operation at the expense of performance -- still retaining performance much better than ground transport -- and efficient flight operations, that may not necessarily be the case. It is a particularly attractive idea for European Union members in the East where the transport network is underdeveloped, and no doubt the same technology could be applicable to undeveloped regions such as Africa.

Of course, PPlane is just an investigation, considering options to see what might be workable. PPlane research has focused on unconventional aircraft configurations -- roadable aircraft and tilt-rotors, for example -- with unconventional propulsion -- electric or hybrid propeller propulsion, for example. The flight infrastructure is a particular concern, since PPlane envisions a vast expansion of light-aircraft traffic and inclement-weather operation. The concept is that the aircraft will be piloted, but the pilots won't be much more highly trained than taxi drivers are, with a largely automated flight control system doing most of the work. A modified Diamond DA42 Twinstar civil aircraft has been modified for trials. The PPlane investigation was begun in 2008 and is scheduled to end this year.

PPlane concept

* Air taxi schemes lead to notions of personal air vehicles. Various "flying car" concepts have been around for a very long time, but they've never been anything but toylike in concept and rarely have gone beyond concept. Nobody sees much else happening in the near term, but optimists think that new technologies will change that. Given highly efficient aircraft, small air vehicles may become competitive with ground transport; given increased leverage off of robotics and other advanced tech, it should be much easier to operate large numbers of small air vehicles with an acceptably low accident rate, conceivably even lower than that of ground traffic on a passenger-mile basis, with robot vertical takeoff and landing machines capable of shuttling cargo or people anywhere. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 02 FEB 12] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: The saga of claims for a link between the virus known as XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has been traced in these pages since the story began in 2009, being last discussed here only a few months ago. That entry described how the issue has become nightmare for all concerned, with some researchers being threatened by CFS victims and deciding to take their research efforts elsewhere.

Now the matter seems to have come, at least officially, to an end. In late December 2011, the journal AAAS SCIENCE formally repudiated the 2009 paper by Dr. Judy Mikovits and her colleagues supposedly establishing the link. The researchers could not agree on the wording of a full retraction, so the editors of AAAS SCIENCE issued the retraction on their own, an unusual step. The retraction of the Mikovits paper was followed by a retraction of a complementary 2010 paper publishing the PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCE, in this case the authors more conventionally issuing the retraction on their own. There are no other papers still active that support the XMRV-CFS link. Those working on CFS are being very cautious about publicizing results of their studies, and as noted some of them have got out of CFS work completely.

Such scientific controversies are a tempest in a teacup to the general public, but in the science community they are graveyards of professional reputations. Mikovits might not have been done too much harm had she acknowledged something was wrong, but she was stubborn and refused to budge; it appears the reason that AAAS SCIENCE's editors had to perform the retraction was because Mikovits refused to sign one herself. It was a nasty Christmas present for Mikovits, compounding troubles with accusations of theft of materials from a previous employer that sent Mikovits to jail for a short time and still has her staring down the muzzle of a court case.

* Being badly burned is a nightmare prospect, resulting in injury, pain, and potentially severe disfigurement. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST Online ("No More Hard Graft?", 15 June 2011), treatment of severe burns traditionally demands that patches of skin be taken from one place on the victim's body and used to patch the burn. It is laborious and the results are not always pretty. Two researchers working independently -- Joerg Gerlach of the University of Pittsburgh and Fiona Wood, a plastic surgeon in Perth, Australia -- have come up with what they feel is a better idea: spray the skin back on.

The source of the "spray skin" is still skin taken from the victim, but in the spray-on scheme the skin is dissolved into individual cells using an enzyme solution. The cells are then applied to the burn wound with a pneumatic spray or a syringe. The spray method currently takes a little longer to perform, but it has significant advantages. One of the biggest is coverage: in traditional grafting, a patch of skin is stretched to three or four times its original size to get the most leverage, but the spray method gets up to 20 times the coverage.

Gerlach and Wood also believe that the spray method results in less scarring, though given the fact that the scheme is so new that hasn't been validated yet. However, it is certainly true that the ability to fix a big burn with a small patch of skin means it's easier to match color of skin; in fact, Wood says she's sanded down old burn scars and used spray to achieve a better tone.

Right now, the spray technique only works with second-degree burns. For third-degree burns, those in which both the dermis and epidermis have been destroyed, spraying has to be used in conjunction with grafting since spraying cannot regenerate dermal tissue. Gerlach is currently investigating ways extracting and spraying the specific stem cells needed to regenerate dermal tissue. The US military is very interested in Gerlach's work, since burns are not at all unusual among combat casualties.

* Stink bugs are members of the hemipterans, the group of insects referred to as "true bugs", somewhat less distinctive than other groups of insects such as wasps, butterflies, or mosquitoes. There are a fair number of species of stink bugs in the USA; as reported by THE ECONOMIST, one is making a nuisance of itself.

The brown marmorated stink bug was introduced to America from Asia in the 1990s and really likes it here, having spread over 30 states. It feeds on figs, mulberries, corn, citrus fruits, soybeans, and dozens of other plants, including some weeds. It won't kill the plants, but it renders their produce unmarketable. It has attacked peaches in Pennsylvania, peppers in New Jersey, and apples all along the mid-Atlantic states, and things are expected to get worse. The brown marmorated stink bug has no natural enemies, and it breeds rapidly, twice a year in temperate regions -- six times a year in warm ones, which means it could really go wild once it reaches the US Southeast.

brown marmorated stink bug

The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued exemptions for unusually heavy applications of pesticides, but nobody sees that as either an attractive or a long-term solution. Researchers are investigation the import of a parasitic wasp that keeps the bug in check in its homelands; it is likely to take several years to evaluate the wasp to make sure it doesn't have any "unintended consequences". Until then, growers are just going to have to put up with the pest.

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[WED 01 FEB 12] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, in May 2011 three software designers were sitting around at their workplace, the facility of French game developer Ubisoft in the suburbs of Paris, feeling disgusted with things in general and bored. They got to sticking up "post-it" sheets on a window to piece together a classic "Space Invaders" icon. A few days later, they found a more elaborate "Pac-Man" icon, tacked up in post-its in the windows of the bank across the street.

And so the "post-it war" began, with companies whose buildings faced each other across the business districts of Paris competing to out-post each other. The push was originally for classic videogame icons, since their coarse little graphics were easily translated into post-it notes, but they gradually escalated, with banker Societe Generale posting giant figures of the Gallic warriors Asterix and Obelix, beloved all over Europe, made up of 11,000 post-it stickers.

post-it wars

The fad then began to die out in Paris, but by that time it had spread around the globe, from Melbourne to Warsaw to Seattle: WORLD WAR POST-IT. Giant 3M, where the post-it was invented -- by legend, from the Zen perceptiveness of a researcher who came up with a glue that didn't stick very well -- took an aloof attitude towards the fad, doing nothing to encourage the frivolity, but making sure that product was available.

* I was playing games with my phone answering machine lately. I never answer the phone directly, and I kept hearing people getting the answering machine and hanging up promptly. I got annoyed with it and set up an answering machine message to make it sound like someone had answered the phone.

That was just silliness; the interesting thing was that sometimes they bit, and I found out who was calling. I was thinking a lot of the calls were wrong numbers, but it turns out such are rare. Lots of them are fake charities, such as the "Policeman's Protective Fund" -- actually a legal charity, but disreputable, giving away the smallest proportion of the take possible to allow it to qualify as a charity. Some of the fakes only ask for hand-me-downs, it seems there's some money there if they pile up enough goods.

It's hard to say what proportion of the callers are fakes, particularly since sometimes fakes like to pretend to be real charities or use very similar names -- but it doesn't matter. Cold-calling is obnoxious, and I have no reason to bother with a charity that plays that game when I can give my money to charities I know are legitimate. Besides, people who call me and won't leave a message are telling me I've got no business with them in the first place.

* As noted last month, I was very glad to get done with the JFK assassination materials. It wasn't just because the subject was obnoxious, it was also because for whatever reason it ended up being an "extra" project that didn't fit into my regular work schedule -- meaning that over the two years I worked on it, I increasingly had to steal time from scheduled work to get it done. At the end, when I was determined to get it out the door at all costs, I was dropping other things and they piled up. I ended up with another set of bookmarked links in my web browser that ran off the screen, while my queue of blog articles was starting to thin out, all the more so because I threw out about a dozen blog postings on the JFK assassination. I still had materials in the queue for about eight weeks, but I didn't like the trendline.

The last time I got backlogged like that, it took me about three months to fix things, but this time the queue of blog articles was almost fully reloaded by the end of the month, putting me increasingly in the position of looking for items to discard since the queue was beginning to overflow. I'm still behind the learning curve on various things, but having got rid of a sink for time I'm in the position of actually getting caught up, after increasingly falling behind over the last two years. Funny how things sneak up on oneself.

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