aug 2012 / last mod jul 2016 / greg goebel

* 23 entries including: torpedoes, video games, understanding crowds, proliferation of synthetic drugs, using bacteria to synthesize scents and flavors, community colleges, medical pricing quandary, Paralympics, bluetooth-enabled shoes for the blind, enhanced e-books, Readyset power module for the developing world, emergence of land plants may have led to ice ages, and Olympics not necessarily good business proposition.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2012: As reported by TIME magazine, the ObamaCare national health act is bitterly resented by many Americans -- but after ObamaCare was upheld by the US Supreme Court in June, Swiss news media proclaimed the decision a "victory for common sense".

So why care what the Swiss think? Because in 1996 they set up a national health care system fundamentally similar to that defined by ObamaCare, providing universal coverage through mandatory private insurance -- obtained from one of 92 different insurance firms who can't turn down clients with pre-existing conditions. Unlike most European countries, the Swiss don't have socialized medicine, though the government regulates the insurance industry and defines what health services must be offered, with the package including doctor's visits, hospital stays, medications, physical therapy, and in-home nursing care.

Depending on the deductible, the monthly premium for this basic package averages about $300 USD for adults, plus some co-pays, but it can't exceed 8% of personal income; above that threshold, the government subsidizes the cost. At present roughly one-third of Swiss households, mainly single-parent families and immigrants, get some level of subsidy. Patients can choose any physician; public satisfaction with the system is very high.

According to United Nations, the Swiss have the second-highest life expectancy in the world, while the United States lags behind in the 38th place, despite the fact that US spends about $8,000 USD per person for healthcare each year. Switzerland's health spending isn't all that cheap, about $5,350 USD per person per year, but studies show that Switzerland is at the head of the list for cost-effective allocation of medical resources.

So what does "SwissCare" prove about ObamaCare? One thing is that universal coverage ends up lowering individual outlays by widening the insurance pool. However, there are significant differences between the two systems as well: price and benefit coverage are much more highly regulated in Switzerland than it seems likely they ever will be in the USA. How ObamaCare actually works itself out remains to be seen.

* Anyone who had followed domestic terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s recognized the prime threat was from Rightist militias and race supremacist groups, as most significantly demonstrated by the 1995 truck bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building that killed 168 people. The militia movement, inspired by the attack, continued to grow to the end of the decade -- only to then go into remission, partly because of Federal arrests of violent ringleaders, partly because the movement had banked heavily on a millennial global cataclysm in the year 2000 that, it seems, didn't come off.

rescue teams, OK City bombing, 1995

The 9-11 attacks the next year, 2001, turned the focus on Islamic terrorism, and the militia threat evaporated -- or did it? Certainly most of the people who had been in the ranks of the militias in the 1990s hadn't gone away, leading to the question of what they were up to. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) certainly thought that was a very good question, releasing a report dated 7 April 2009 that suggested economic problems along with the election of a president of color presented "unique drivers for Right-wing radicalization and recruitment."

The report highlighted other drivers as well, such as fears of illegal immigrants, paranoia about gun laws, and the insecurities of returning war veterans. The conclusion was that the national climate of 2009 was uncomfortably similar to that of the early 1990s. The report was not well received, critics saying it portrayed conservatives as terrorists, with loud criticisms from Congress pushing the DHS to reduce staffing for surveillance of home-grown terrorism. Legislative disinterest in militia extremism proved all but willful, with the House conducting five hearings since 2010 on Islamic terrorism and none on the militia threat.

However, as the DHS report predicted in 2009, militia groups have been proliferating rapidly in the past few years, and extremist attacks have been on the rise as well, most notably the attack on a Sikh temple in Milwaukee on 5 August in which six were killed with the shooter, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page, then killing himself. It appears he mistook the Sikhs for Muslims -- a popular misconception, though militiamen tend to be not very particular in their distaste for people who look too foreign to them.

Militia violence now seems to be resurfacing. The authorities are certainly keeping tabs on such groups, but it's not easy to do, and it's made more difficult by conservative political denial that the Right has a violent component, not matched by the Left. There's no particular reason to think the Left can't perform acts of terrorism, but the threat doesn't really seem to be there -- the last American violent Leftist terrorist of note was Ted "Unabomber" Kaczynski, a lone wolf who was arrested in 1996. In any case, we are left with the worry that the only way militia extremism is going to get back on the front burner is from something like a replay of the Oklahoma City bombing. We can only hope that doesn't happen, but we won't be too surprised if it does.

* The increase in US population past the 300 million headcount was discussed here in 2006, along with comments as to why the fertility rate, about 2.1 kids per woman, was higher in the US than it is in, say, Europe. As now reported by THE ECONOMIST, possibly that was taking too generous a view of American exceptionalism, since now American fertility has fallen to 1.9, compared with 2.0 in France and the UK -- and it seems to be slightly on the rise in Britain.

Why the decrease in the USA? One word: economics. The recession means that migrants, who tend to have larger families than the norm, can't find jobs and have had to go back home. Similarly, it means young folk deferring buying a home and starting a family. US fertility does seem to be rebounding slowly along with the economy, and even at its low point the US had higher fertility rates than the Mediterranean and Eastern European countries. Still, as world population heads for a peak of nine billion souls, the global trendline is of decreasing growth, and America doesn't seem to really be any exception to the trend.



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online reports that Samsung of Korea is now promoting a gimmick known as "TecTiles" for use with mobile phones featuring a near-field wireless communications interface. Although NFC is mostly targeted at "smart wallet" applications -- used for money transfers between a phone and a reader terminal -- Samsung believes it has broader potential, and the TecTiles can exploit it.

A TecTile is basically a sticker containing flash memory and an NFC interface. The sticker can be programmed with a set of actions and then stuck onto some surface, with the actions executed by a cellphone that's then placed on it. For example, a TecTile could change a phone's default settings, launch an app, key into a specific wi-fi network, or share contact information as a "digital business card". TecTiles will be sold through AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, as well as on Samsung's website, at a price of $15 USD for a pack of five.

Samsung is not alone in chasing this idea; near-field tags are a boom business these days, with a number of firms promoting the idea. South Korean researchers have developed a printed fabrication process that, they claim, can reduce the cost of tags to a penny in bulk, hinting that the use of near-field tags is poised to explode.

* An article from WIRED Online blogs on the emerging "internet of things" tipped me off to the Pebble "smartwatch", now in principle heading for production. It looks pretty much like an ordinary digital wristwatch, or at least it can -- but it has an e-paper display, vibration alert interface, and a Bluetooth wireless link. With Bluetooth, the Pebble can hook up to an iPhone or Android phone to provide alerts about incoming messages.

Pebble watch

The Pebble can do more than that, however, since it is possible to download apps to it written in its own scripting language, allowing it to be customized to different watch configurations, or display Twitter messages, or do anything else within the range of its capabilities. It also has a three-axis accelerometer to allow it to handle a degree of gesture recognition. A silly gimmick? Maybe, but if so, it still does seem like the seed of a good idea.

* As reported by THE NEW YORK TIMES, London, Singapore, Stockholm and a few other cities around the world battle heavy traffic with a "congestion charge", penalizing people for driving at peak traffic hours. Drivers hate it and it's been a complete nonstarter in the USA. Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of computer science at Stanford University in California, got to thinking while he was stuck in a traffic jam in Bangalore, India, that maybe carrots might work better than sticks in smoothing out traffic congestion.

In the spring of 2012, using a $3 million USD research grant from the US Department of Transportation, Stanford implemented a program named "CAPRI (Congestion And Parking Relief Incentives)" in which people driving into the notoriously traffic-clogged campus could enter a lottery and win cash prizes by simply shifting their commute to off-peak times. The program has proven so popular that it is now being expanded to cover parking.

Prabhakar is a specialist in computer networks and likes to apply his network thinking to physical-world problems. He is strongly biased towards incentive programs, noting that while sticks mean enforcement, carrots promote voluntary compliance. Instead of having to install an infrastructure to monitor traffic, incentive programs can be supported by the smartphones carried by the citizens involved.

Some critics suggest that incentive programs won't be enough to deal with the traffic problems of badly congested cities. Prabhakar replies that incentive systems can be seen as complementary to compliance programs, and that even if incentive programs can't do the whole job, they can accomplish a great deal. Traffic jams are "nonlinear" in that they don't start to happen until a certain threshold of traffic is reached, and then only a small increment of traffic is enough to tie everything up. Even if an incentive program to deal with traffic congestion doesn't reach everyone, it can still work. Says Prabhakar: "You don't have to change everyone's behavior; in fact, it's better if you don't."



* SYNTHETIC DRUG WHACK-A-MOLE: As reported by WIRED Online blogs, the war on drugs has always been problematic, and it's getting more problematic. Synthetic mimics of marijuana and other illegal recreational drugs are popping up at a rate that defies efforts to control them. Every time a compound is banned, chemists overseas synthesize a new version tweaked just enough to evade the law -- leaving the authorities in the position of playing what has been called a "giant game of chemical whack-a-mole".

Forensic toxicologist Kevin Shanks of AIT Laboratories, an Indiana-based chemical testing company, comments: "Manufacturers turn these things around so quickly. One week you'll have a product with compound X, the next week it's compound Y. It's fascinating how fast it can occur, and it's fascinating to see the minute changes in chemical structure they'll come up with. It's similar, but it's different."

During the last few years, the market for legal highs has exploded in North America and Europe. The names and "cover stories" of the products are almost comical -- "Cloud 9 Mad Hatter Incense", "Zombie Matter Ultra Potpourri", "Ivory Wave Bath Salts", "Crystal Clean Pipe Cleaner" -- but they are based on extremely sophisticated chemical design. Active ingredients in the drugs are compounds originally synthesized by mainstream researchers, whose specialized scientific publications were mined by shadowy chemists working in Asia, where most of the new drugs appear to come from.

The new drugs do not merely get around legal barriers, they can also pack a far stronger punch than the originals, being downright dangerous for use by individuals with personality disorders. Reports of psychotic episodes following synthetic drug use are common, and have led to efforts to control the drugs at the city, state, and national level. The controls are largely ineffective, mostly because once a product is targeted, it simply disappears, to be replaced by another that could be even more potent. There's talk of banning entire classes of synthetics, but Shanks, who's involved with groups investigating the issue, says that's a can of worms: "The problem with that is, what does 'chemically similar' really mean? Change the structure in a small way -- move a molecule here, move something to the other side of the molecule -- and while I might think it's an analog, another chemist might disagree."

* BACTERIAL ACCENTS: In less controversial chemical synthesis news, WIRED Online blogs reported that the chemical industry is now turning to the genetic modification of bacteria and yeast to produce scents and flavors. Traditionally, such substances have been produced by plants, some of which can only be grown in certain regions, with the supply easily disrupted by natural disasters or other troubles. Once scents and flavors can be synthesized as a factory process, supply issues will no longer be a factor, and prices are likely to fall.


Biotech firms such as Allylix, Isobionics and Evolva are genetically engineering bacteria and yeast that can produce plant oils by fermenting sugars. These companies claim they can make almost any plant-derived molecule; the challenge is just to scale up production. Vanillin scent, which is already produced synthetically, can also be made by microbial fermentation. Unnatural? The molecules look the same no matter how they're produced.



* BEST-KEPT SECRET: As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Community Colleges: Restoration Drama", 28 April 2012), everybody knows America's health care system is in a state of growing financial crisis. Less attention has been paid to the fact that higher education is as well, with the costs of tuition at prestigious American universities growing at three times the rate of inflation over the past few decades.

The irony is that in contrast to the university system, America's low-cost community colleges are generally ignored. However, over half of the nation's 20 million undergraduates attend them, and the number is growing fast. Poor, minority and first-generation-immigrant students are far more likely to get their basic higher education education from community colleges. Many policymakers are wondering whether paying more attention to community colleges might be a low-cost way of resolving the nation's shortage of skilled workers.

America's problem with training was displayed in a report published in 2011 by Deloitte, a consultancy firm, and the Manufacturing Institute. It identified 600,000 positions that were going unfilled because there were too few qualified skilled workers. Too few colleges, it seems, try to align themselves with the needs of local employers. In a few cases, companies have taken matters into their own hands. Parcel freight shipper UPS has set up a training college in Louisville, Kentucky, for example.

Elsewhere, community colleges have been moving into the vacuum, with junior colleges in a number of states working to address the shortfall. Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushing a plan in which each of the city's community colleges is to focus on training in a specific sector of industry, such as health care, transport or logistics. Large numbers of such jobs are expected to be created locally in the next decade. In health care alone, the city expects 84,000 openings in the Chicago area. The mayor wants to make sure that local youngsters, not out-of-towners, get the first shot at these jobs. Malcolm X College, for example, will get a $251 million USD campus and its courses will be set up to match the needs of its new partners, such as the nearby Rush University Medical Center.

Emanuel's old boss, Barack Obama, has similar notions, saying he wants two million Americans to get training in skills that will lead directly to jobs. Obama has also praised college-industry partnerships between businesses and community colleges in Charlotte, North Carolina and Orlando, Florida.

The community colleges are trying to meet the challenge, as illustrated in a report sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges. One issue is that the students of community colleges have different lifestyles from students at universities. University students typically live on campus and are more or less dedicated to their studies; community college students generally live, of course, in the community, and they often have dependents and regular jobs. To deal with the needs of their students, community colleges are now increasingly scheduling classes in blocks instead of scattering them across the work week. Community colleges also need to make sure their course material is focused on specific student needs, not padded with requirements courses that don't really have much value.

Brevard Community College, Florida Space Coast

The report also proposed that the incentive system for community colleges needs to be fine-tuned. These days, community colleges are mostly funded on the basis of the numbers of students enrolled; it might work better if they were granted additional financial incentives based on the success of their students, in terms of graduation rates or employment. The report suggests ferment in the community college system, but community colleges are also confronted with a challenge: budget cuts in an era of financial austerity. Community colleges could help boost a more competitive America, but until America becomes more competitive, they'll be confronted with tight budgets.

* ED: I obtained an electronics tech degree from Spokane Community College and then a BSEE from Oregon State University, and to this day I remained baffled as to why America's "junior colleges" are so overshadowed by the university system:

The US higher educational system has the absurd appearance of an inverted pyramid. There wasn't a thing I did in my two decades in industry that I couldn't have done with a proper community college degree, and I have to add that my time in community college was the only schooling in my life where I honestly had fun -- though personal issues were admittedly a factor in other cases. Rather than close on a sour note, however, the topic reminds of Apu of THE SIMPSONS, the Indian convenience store operator, who has a community college degree: "Oh yes! I graduated from the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology!"



* VIDEO GAMES CONQUER THE WORLD (3): Along with diversification of the gaming experience, there's been diversification in ways of making money off games. Just selling them is the traditional model, with console makers still doing well at it; internet-oriented game makers also like to offer, as per ANGRY BIRDS and BEJEWELED, freebie downloads of limited versions of their games to promote sales of the full game. Simple online games may also be supported by advertising.

Those are useful but comparatively unimaginative approaches to making a profit. One of the innovative business models is to give users free access to online games, and then charge them for a range of extras. For example, when the LORD OF THE RINGS ONLINE MMORPEG was introduced in 2007 by game developer Turbine, users had to buy the game for $40 USD and then pay a subscription fee of $10 USD a month. In 2010, the game itself was made free, but players could spend real money on "Turbine Points", amounting to various enhancements of the game experience. Turbine officials said they tripled revenue from the game.


In FARMVILLE, Zynga"s popular Facebook-based farming simulator, players can earn coins to spend on crops, livestock or farm equipment by playing the game, or they can buy such kit with real cash. Such transactions make up the bulk of Zynga"s revenues. Not all the salables are for playing the game; some are just "vanity items", such as a new design for an electronic homestead that players decide they want to have. Dedicated players are willing to spend the money, one industry observer saying: "You make 80% of your revenue from 20% of your player base." Sometimes it's serious money. In DARK ORBIT, a browser-based space adventure from Bigpoint, a German online-game studio, customers can buy a "10th drone" to beef up their spaceship for around 1,000 Euros -- and BigPoint sold more than 2,000 of them in 2011.

Of course, given the value of the items, there's a fair amount of trading among players, though most, if not all, game companies try to pretend it's illegal to do so. But how can they stop it? If players can transfer ownership of virtual goods, they can come to an arrangement to do so through a cash transaction by email or whatever. Some gamers claim they can actually make a living selling virtual goods.

Monetarizing virtual goods may seem like an absurd idea at first sight, but is it? We can easily consider virtual goods to be software models, a form of software, and nobody has any problem thinking that software can have a monetary value. Players don't really see much difference between virtual and real goods: in 2005, a Chinese gamer loaned a virtual sword to a friend, only to find out the friend sold it. Enraged, the owner murdered him. The owner went to prison for life.

With an increasing amount of money trading hands in virtual worlds, to no surprise governments are starting to intrude, seeking to tax such transactions. That leads to a complete hornet's nest of legal issues -- for example, if a games company goes bust and players lose all their virtual goods, can the players claim a loss on their tax forms? If the virtual goods cost real money, that would logically follow. Courts around the world are coming to grips with the legal implications of trade in virtual worlds.

With players pumping real money into their virtual game worlds, in some cases the gaming business hands it back out. There's actually a cadre of professional gamers who make money, on occasion surprisingly good money, in video game competitions -- organized by firms such as Major League Gaming (MLG) of the USA, with counterparts elsewhere. Competition gaming isn't a new idea, it's been around since the late Nineties, but it's only now starting to catch on in the West.

Gaming companies are accepting the concept, incorporating features into gaming systems that permit wider competition, fan interaction, and a better spectator experience. Says one game developer: "We can offer the visual spectacle of alien races battling to the death for your own amusement." The game developers sometimes offer prizes, breaking down the line between online gaming and online gambling, and have been even attracting sponsors. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE TORPEDO (7): While the Whitehead torpedo was establishing itself as a standard weapon of the world's navies, it had a number of competitors, none of which actually amounted to much of a rival to it. The Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, noted for his design of the famous Union ironclad MONITOR, developed a torpedo powered by a pneumatic engine like the Whitehead -- but it was a clumsy contraption, a surface-running weapon resembling a boiler, with its power provided by air lines from the launch platform. It was slow and necessarily had limited range. Ericsson also developed an underwater compressed-air gun that fired a dynamite shell, but it was afflicted by short range as well.

John Lay, an American inventor who had developed spar torpedoes for the Union during the Civil War, developed a series of torpedoes noted for their complexity but not their practicality. Lay actually managed to sell some of his torpedoes to the Peruvian Navy; they were surface-running weapons powered by pressurized carbonic acid, and were controlled over an electrical umbilical cable. The Peruvians used them in a war with Chile in 1879 and found them more of a menace to themselves than to the Chileans, and promptly disposed of them before somebody got hurt. The Royal Navy evaluated the Lay torpedo and gave it a thumb's down; the Russians did acquire license manufacturing rights, but never built any.

An expatriate Irishman named Louis Philip Brennan managed to convince the Royal Navy to acquire his torpedo, which was actually powered by two wires pulled from spools in the torpedo by winches, the spools turning the torpedo's propellers. The Brennan torpedo could be steered by altering the differential rate at which the two wires were spooled out. It was effectively a shore-defense weapon; the Royal Navy kept it in service from the 1880s into 1905, but it was never used in anger, which was probably just as well in all respects.

The number of other torpedo designs that emerged in the era were generally even more dubious, featuring gimmicks such as rocket propulsion -- not a completely bad idea over the long run, as it would turn out -- or floats to maintain depth-keeping. The only alternative torpedo design of the era that represented any challenge to the Whitehead weapon was devised by a US Navy officer named John A. Howell. In the 1870s, Howell developed a torpedo that was powered by a flywheel spun up by pressurized air or a winch on the launch platform, leading to a production order for 50 Howell torpedoes by the US Navy in 1889.

The idea had a certain amount of merit, the Howell torpedo being in principle cheaper than the relatively complicated Whitehead, with its expensive compressed-air vessel, and the Howell also didn't leave a wake. However, Howell effectively only worked on his torpedo in his time he could spare from his Navy duties, and he was never able to focus on its development. Ultimately, improvements in the Whitehead gave it performance that the Howell could never match even in principle, and Howell's interesting flywheel torpedo was a dead end. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for July included:

-- 05 JUL 12 / ECHOSTAR 17, MSG 3 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou to put the Hughes Network Systems "Echostar 17" geostationary comsat and EUMETSAT "MSG 3" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. Echostar 17 was built by Space Systems / Loral. It had launch mass of 6,100 kilograms (13,448 pounds), a payload of 60 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 107 degrees West longitude to provide high-speed internet access to customers in the USA and Canada.

MSG 3 / Meteosat 10

MSG 3 (named Meteosat 10 once operational) was built by Thales Alenia Space for the European Meteorological Satellite Organization. It was the third in a modernized series of four Meteosat spacecraft. It had a launch mass of 2,035 kilograms (4,486 pounds) and a design life of seven years. MSG 3 was a spin-stabilized satellite, carrying three payloads:

The satellite was placed over the zero meridian to observe the Earth from Chile to India. Meteosat 10 replaced Meteosat 8, launched in 2002 and beyond its design life.

-- 10 JUL 12 / SES 5 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the SES World Skies "SES 5" geostationary comsat into orbit. SES 5 was built by Space Systems / Loral; it had a launch mass of 6,005 kilograms (13,245 pounds), a payload of 24 C-band / 36 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services for Europe and Africa. Along with its communications payload, it also carried carry the first hosted L-band payload for the European Commission's "European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS)".

-- 14 JUL 12 / SOYUZ ISS 31S (SOYUZ TMA-05M / ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Soyuz ISS 31S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-05M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. It carried cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (fifth space flight), the Soyuz commander, of the Russian Roscomos space agency; Sunita Williams (second space flight) of America's NASA space agency; and Akihiko Hoshide (second space flight) of Japan's JAXA space agency. The capsule docked with the ISS Rassvet module two days after launch, the Soyuz crew joining the ISS "Expedition 32" crew of commander cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, cosmonaut Sergei Revin, and astronaut Joseph Acaba.


-- 20 JUL 12 / HTV 3 -- An Japanese JAXA H-2B booster was launched from Tanegashima to put the third "H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV 3)", an unmanned freighter, into orbit on an ISS resupply mission. It docked with the station's Harmony module six days after launch. HTV 3 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and had a launch mass of 15,875 kilograms (35,000 pounds), including 3,855 kilograms (8,500 pounds) of payload. The payload included a catalytic reactor for the station's water processing system; a water pump; along with Japanese food, beverages and crew clothing.

It also carried a "Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) Small Satellite Orbiter Deployer Module (J-SSOD)" CubeSat launcher, carrying five CubeSats:

The primary goal of carrying the five CubeSats to the station was to test the J-SSOD CubeSat launcher. Previously, nanosats launched from the ISS had been deployed on spacewalks; the launcher permitted the deployment of the CubeSats from the robot arm of the Japanese JEM/ Kibo ISS module. The CubeSats were deployed in early October 2012.

-- 22 JUL 12 / KANOPUS V1, BELKA 2, SMALLSATS x 3 -- A Soyuz Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Russian "Kanopus V1" and Belaran "BelKA 2" remote-sensing satellites into space. The launch also included three smallsats:

-- 28 JUL 12 / COSMOS 2481 (STRELA 3M), GONETS M x 2, MIR -- A Rockot booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia to put a Strela 3M military communications satellite, designated "Cosmos 2481", and two "Gonets M" civil communications satellites into orbit, along with the "MiR" AKA "Yubeleiny 2" technology demonstrator smallsat.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As reported by AVIATION WEEK, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is now poised to move forward on India's first planetary mission, a Mars orbiter to be lofted in the November 2013 Mars launch window. The spacecraft will carry a science payload to perform nine different experiments, with the payload weighing a total of 25 kilograms (55 pounds).

* In very late breaking space news, while NASA's planetary exploration plans have been thrown thoroughly for a loop by budget cuts, the agency has now announced a Mars mission for the 2016 launch window -- Mars launch windows come open about once every 26 months -- named the "Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, & Heat Transport (INSIGHT)" mission. It will consist of a lander that will place a French-made seismometer on the Martian surface and use a German-made drill to bore up to 5 meters (16 feet) down into the soil for temperature measurements.

NASA INSIGHT Mars lander

INSIGHT will also feature a robot arm and two monochrome cameras, with its communications system used for analyzing small variations in the rotation of the Red Planet. The lander will be an installment in NASA's relatively low-cost Discovery space science missions and will be based on NASA's Phoenix lander, which landed on Mars in May 2008. As with Phoenix, INSIGHT will be built by Lockheed Martin. It will follow NASA's MAVEN atmospheric analysis probe, to be lofted in the 2013 Mars launch window.



* TELL ME HOW MUCH: An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Shopping Around For Surgery", 4 February 2012) provided demonstrations of one set of efforts to bring the US health care system under control. Americans spent $2.6 trillion USD on health care in 2010, a staggering 18% of the nation's GDP -- with few buyers having any idea of what a treatment is going to cost them or how they can compare alternative offerings. Pricing is utterly opaque and buried under health-insurance bureaucratese. Buying a procedure is something like buying a house blindfolded, signing a mortgage written in Sanskrit, and then getting the bill later.

Now this is changing, if slowly. One element of the trend towards pricing transparency are "consumer-driven health plans" now being pushed by employers, which requires that workers must cough up part of the price of any treatment before their insurance coverage kicks in. Most have an untaxed account to spend on health, and they think twice before depleting it. General Electric (GE) shifted its salaried employees into consumer-driven plans in 2010. The company urged them to shop around for bargains, but that placed the employees between a rock and a hard place, because they had no way of figuring out what a bargain was. Doctors couldn't tell their patients what they would have to pay -- the doctors didn't refuse to, they couldn't because the insurance system was just as opaque to them as it was to the patients.

ObamaCare reform requires hospitals to list standard prices each year, and more than 30 states have either proposed or passed laws to promote price transparency. That hasn't done much good, so companies are increasingly trying to deal with the task on their own. GE, for example, hired Thomson Reuters, a data analysis firm, to show employees the cost of different services. Thomson Reuters analyzed prices from prior purchases -- by workers at GE and other firms -- to show the cost of a given procedure at different hospitals and clinics. Another firm, Castlight Health of California, was set up specifically to obtain medical price transparency. Working with big companies, Castlight collects and analyzes data from past transactions so that employees can shop for doctors online and read reviews posted by patients.

However, buying health care is not as simple as, say, buying a car. These days anyone can easily get accurate prices for cars and options online, leaving car dealerships very much on the defensive. The difference from medical care is that customers will know what car they want to buy and what options they would like to get -- but as far as treatments go, all they know is what their doctors tell them. Another problem is that health insurers, somewhat surprisingly, don't like price transparency, since any hospital that finds out it's not getting as much money for a procedure as the norm will simply try to raise the price. Capitalism works far more equitably than anyone would have cause to expect on the face of it, but the health care system seems to bring out its perversities with a vengeance.

Despite the difficulties, prices for medical treatment are gradually becoming more transparent as insurers set up tools that can be accessed over the internet. One official at an insurer hopes that consumers will soon be able to use their smartphones to enter symptoms, find doctors, compare prices and schedule an appointment. Transparency won't happen overnight, but light does seem to be creeping in.



* PARALYMPIC GOLD: Although the London Olympics are over now, the city is getting ready to conduct another set of games, the "Paralympics", in which handicapped athletes "go for the gold". As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Adversity & Adverts", 21 July 2012), although the Paralympics are not in the same league of scale with the Olympics, these days they're not a toy event either. They also demonstrate advances in prosthetics.

Welcome to the Otto Bock firm in Duderstadt, Germany, where prosthetic legs are robotically marched through intensive testing cycles until they're ready to be shipped to users. Otto Bock's prosthetic legs are much tougher than such things were decades ago -- but back then, it was unusual to see people with artificial legs in the active life, playing tennis or taking hikes. Now, in developed countries, it's basically ordinary. Hans Georg Nader, the boss of Otto Bock, thinks the Paralympics have helped changed the mindset about handicaps, showing that disabled people can sprint, ride horses and play wheelchair rugby -- AKA "murderball", because it gets so rough. Nader says that the Paralympics "takes away the stigma of being handicapped. It shows what is possible."

wheelchair rugby

The first Paralympics Games were conducted in 1948 by a small group of disabled British war veterans. Otto Bock has sponsored the Paralympics for 24 years, supplying carbon-fiber blades for sprinting, and ultralight wheelchairs with cambered wheels that let them spin on a dime. The company's participation in the Games of course has a business aspect, with the Games not only showing off product but allowing the world's players in prosthetic technology to see what the competition is up to.

Prosthetics for athletes are actually simpler than those for general use, built for light weight and sturdiness at the cost of complexity. A sprinter only has to negotiate a flat track, while people trying to get around a city with artificial legs have to deal with rough and muddy terrain, as well as stairs. In fact, Paralympics rules ban the use of "smarts" to boost performance.

Another major backer of the Paralympics is Sainsbury's, Britain's high-end supermarket chain. What's in it for Sainsbury's? First, it seems that mothers who do a lot of grocery shopping, respond warmly to the Paralympic vision of triumph over adversity. Second, in Britain the Olympics were televised by the BBC without ads, but the Paralympics will be shown by Channel 4, a private station, with plenty of commercial breaks, giving Sainsbury's plenty of opportunity to flog their offerings.

* BLUETOOTH SHOES: In related news, as reported by Babbage, THE ECONOMIST's technology blogger, an Indian computer engineer from Hyderabad named Anirudh Sharma has come up with a surprising gimmick -- shoes with a wireless Bluetooth digital communications link. That sounds silly on the face of it, but on closer investigation it snaps together cleverly. Sharma's invention, named "Le Chal" ("take me along" in Hindi), is an aid for the blind. The core of Le Chal is a smartphone app that drives two vibrating actuators in one shoe, with an actuator on each side of the shoe. The user punches a desired destination into the phone, and the app then uses GPS positioning plus a local map to provide directions, with the two actuators being enabled appropriately to indicate left or right turns.

Sharma chose the vibratory scheme because blind people tend to rely on sound to figure out what's going on around them, and audio signals would be a distraction, possibly a dangerous one. The cellphone app does not require continuous internet access, the map being downloaded to reside in the phone. The map is obtained with Open Street Maps (OSM), an open-source rival to Google Maps. A speed-dial function can rapidly retrieve the most frequently used maps and routes.

The shoe is also fitted with a sonar system in the toe, which activates the vibrating actuators to warn the user of obstacles and provide guidance around them. The scheme is now in test; challenges remain, for example being able to detect open manhole covers, and of course enhancing the system to handle crowded urban environments is a challenge. However, the final product will look generally like a normal shoe and should not cost more than an ordinary high-end shoe.



* VIDEO GAMES CONQUER THE WORLD (2): The game business used to be relatively straightforward. Console makers such as Sony or Nintendo would sell their consoles for cheap, then make money selling games for them at a markup. Games junkies, usually young male technogeeks, would buy the games, play them for a while, then go buy more games.

That pattern persists, with console makers still selling games with flashy graphics for $50 USD or so, but now that's just the high end of the gaming business. At the low end, a clutter of small firms are developing simple, casual games aimed at a broader and more diverse customer base. In between those two endpoints, a mix of established firms and startups are tinkering with new approaches to games and the gaming business.

Games for smartphones are booming, accounting for $8 billion USD of the $65 billion USD global games market, even though smartphone games, or "pocket games", sell for a few bucks. They are simple to play and to make -- though sometimes they are very clever -- meaning development is inexpensive and users are inclined to buy them on impulse, all the more so because they can be easily downloaded. Since there are about 5 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, more than one for every two persons on the planet, the growth potential for smartphone games is enormous. Games made up over half of the list of the 100 most popular apps for the Apple iPhone in 2010.

The mobile market is attracting established game firms such as THQ, a US publisher and developer of video games, and Square Enix, a Japanese publisher and developer that has set up a dedicated mobile division. However, the little guys are the ones to beat, the most spectacular example being Rovio Mobile, a Finnish firm with a few dozen employees, which conquered the world with its ANGRY BIRDS game. It is silliness, with the player guiding the launch by slingshot of surly birds against fortifications set up by egg-stealing green pigs, but it clicked, with over a half-billion downloads so far. Rovio Mobile offers a limited free version to get people hooked, then sells them a full version when they do. In contrast to ANGRY BIRDS, a console game is regarded as successful if it sells a few million copies.


Relatively simple games have also caught on in the PC environment, either as web-based or downloadable games. One of the big hits has been BEJEWELED by PopCap of Seattle, which involves pattern-matching of gems as they fall into a grid. It's easy to play and not time-consuming as long as one knows when to quit; PopCap has sold over 50 million copies of the full version of the game at $20 USD apiece. It's even been sold as a cheap dedicated videogame module that hooks up to a TV.

As mentioned earlier, the internet has become a powerful gaming environment as well, thanks to high-speed data connections, resulting in popular MMORPEGs such as Blizzard Entertainment's WORLDS OF WARCRAFT fantasy battle game. WOW has about 9 million subscribers who pay $10 USD a month to do battle with each other. However, the growth market in online gaming is in social-networking sites, such as Facebook, which have embraced gaming. Games make up half of the 40 most popular applications on Facebook. Some are simply electronic takes on poker or slots, which can optionally be played for real money.

More elaborate games have their fans on social-networking sites, however, such as CITYVILLE, an urban-planning game with tens of millions of players per month. Its San Francisco-based developer, Zynga, specializes in social-networking games. Set up in 2007, it now has 2,000 employees and revenues of around $850 million USD a year. CITYVILLE is structured for the Facebook environment, being easy to play on a casual basis -- no need for the obsession required to win at more elaborate online games -- and designed to support social interaction between players.


Online games also have an advantage in that developers get realtime feedback on improvements from players, and can tweak the game accordingly. That's not true for console games, which demand elaborate productions, not merely translating into several times the expense of online games but in development cycles of at least two years. Console games are holding their own at present, accounting for almost half the sales of the global gaming market, but nobody sees console gaming as a growth market.

Console makers are working hard to stay in place, however, with Nintendo about to release the new "Wii U" -- an interesting hybrid in which the game controller includes a touchscreen and can be used as a handheld game machine. Microsoft and Sony are expected to match. The growth in gaming will certainly take place elsewhere, but it seems plausible that the console game makers will be able to retain a profitable niche in an expanding market. Games for smartphones are already beginning to tick up in complexity and development cost, meaning that their environment is starting to look more like that of console games.

The spread and diversification of gaming has had the result of increasingly toning down criticism of video games. There was a time when they were denounced as promoting violence and gaming addiction, but as more people play video games it gets harder to point an accusatory finger at others. Violent "shooter" games such as HALF-LIFE II -- in which the player not only shoots cyborg mercenaries from parallel worlds but bashes them with a crowbar as well -- do persist, but they are increasingly a minority part of the market. How could playing BEJEWELED be judged as promoting violence? Clever puzzle and strategy games appeal to brainpower, not bloodlust. To be sure, games can certainly be addictive, they're designed to be, but that's true of all entertainments, and there's no reason to single out video games as uniquely addictive. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE TORPEDO (6): The relationship between the Whitehead firm in Fiume and the Royal Laboratory torpedo establishment in Woolrich was a close one, with the two organizations have a generally friendly rivalry in enhancing the torpedo. In 1876, the British came out with an improved "Mark II" version of the 14 Inch Mark I* RL, with incrementally improved range and a larger warhead.

The Royal Navy had obtained a potent new weapon in the form of the torpedo, leading to the question of how it was to be properly employed. It obviously implied new procedures and tactics; since the Royal Navy had never fielded a weapon before that was anything like it, nobody was exactly certain on how best to use it. At the outset, the people in charge of military doctrine were from the "gunnery club", and they generally disliked the torpedo, finding it sneaky and unsporting, calling it the "Devil's Device".

There were those who believed such "unsporting" weapons were the way of the future and were willing to challenge the status quo. One who wanted to do so was an egotistical, noisy, and energetic Royal Navy captain named Jacky Fisher, who after initial skepticism had all but gone crazy over torpedoes. His efforts to pry torpedoes loose from the gunnery clique had limited success, but he pressed the case for the torpedo every chance he had, much to the exasperation of his superiors.

Fisher was also interested in tactical innovation with the torpedo. While Whitehead had restricted his vision of the torpedo launch system as an underwater tube in the bow of a ship, Fisher helped push experiments with underwater broadside tubes from 1874. The motion of a ship tended to throw off the aim of the broadside torpedo, but refinements of the scheme finally yielded reasonable accuracy, with a deviation of trajectory of only 3 degrees when fired broadside from a vessel steaming at 37 KPH (23 MPH / 20 KT). The next step, taken in 1875, was to launch torpedoes from above water, from launchers mounted on a ship's deck. Initial tests going well, two frigates -- the SHAH and the INCONSTANT -- were each fitted with dual launchers on the foredeck.

When the news got back to Whitehead in Fiume of what the Royal Navy was doing he was appalled, with Count Hoyos writing a letter to the British officers in charge to protest that "such delicate weapons are not meant to be fired like a shot from a gun." That was hardly an overreaction, since the Royal Navy was using pneumatic rams to rudely shove torpedoes off the launchers into the sea. The Admiralty was unchastened, it being much easier to mount launchers on deck than rebuild warships with torpedo tubes below the waterline, and a deck launcher also offered the prospect of aimability. As far as the delicacy of the torpedoes went -- well, weapons shouldn't be delicate, if torpedoes couldn't stand the rigors of war, they needed to be ruggedized until they could.

Ultimately, events would prove the Admiralty was on the right track, and the admirals were moving forward along that track -- obtaining the Royal Navy's first torpedo boat, HMS LIGHTNING, from the Thorneycroft yards in 1877. It wasn't actually the service's first purpose-built torpedo craft, but earlier efforts had focused on torpedo-armed ironclad warships; the LIGHTNING, in contrast, was a relatively small wooden vessel, 25.6 meters (84 feet) long, built for speed. It had originally been conceived to use a spar torpedo, but it service it was fitted with a single deck torpedo tube.


The Royal Navy was actually a bit behind the times, torpedo boats becoming increasingly common among the navies of the world. They were cheap and potentially deadly to large warships, and so featured prominently in the nightmares of British admirals. As a result, the Admiralty pursued development of somewhat larger fast warships to take on torpedo boats, these new warships eventually emerging as the "destroyer".

* With the Whitehead torpedo in service with so many of the world's navies, it wasn't long before it was put to use. The HMS SHAH actually had the distinction of being the first vessel to fire one in anger, on 29 May 1877.

The Peruvian ironclad HUASCAR had been seized by revolutionaries; the revolution was unsuccessful, but the revolutionaries simply decided to turn to piracy instead, victims including a number of British merchantmen. The SHAH managed to hunt down the HUASCAR, but the British warship's shot and shells simply bounced off its armor; the SHAH loosed a torpedo at the pirate ironclad, but it was a miss. The pirate crew of the HUASCAR, apparently realizing that the game was up sooner or later, surrendered to a Peruvian Navy squadron the next day. The Whitehead torpedo's combat introduction was nothing to write home about. Incidentally, the HUASCAR is still afloat, having been reconditioned as a historical artifact and on display in Chile.

In the meantime, in April 1877 the Russians had declared war on Turkey. The Turks maintained a powerful fleet of 15 ironclads in the Black Sea, granting them naval superiority. To neutralize the Turkish ironclads, the Russians assembled a motley fleet of torpedo boats -- steam launches variously armed with an electrically detonated spar torpedo, a Harvey towed torpedo, or a Whitehead torpedo -- with merchantmen pressed into service as torpedo boat tenders. The spar torpedo boats were the first to go into action, with four attacking the Turkish ironclad SEIFIZ at anchor in a pouring rain on 25 May 1877. The SEIFIZ was put out of commission, but the attackers were badly chewed up in the process and the Turks quickly became more alert, setting up booms to defend ships at anchor.

Further Russian spar torpedo attacks accomplished nothing except to pile up Russian casualties. There had been some attacks with the Harvey torpedo in the meantime, but the weapon proved ineffectual. Now the Russians turned to the Whitehead torpedo; following an initial operation against the Turks that failed, on the night of 25 January 1878 two Russian torpedo boats managed to blow the Turkish guardship INKTIBAH out of the water. The torpedo had drawn its first blood -- or so the Russians claimed, the Turks denying that they had lost a ship that night. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: Reports from the science blogosphere indicate the supersecret US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has boosted astronomical science through the donation of two large surplus spy satellite mirrors to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). Details are sketchy, but it appears the mirrors are about as big as that of the Hubble Space Telescope -- the Hubble's mirror diameter is 2.4 meters (7 feet 10 inches) -- with a much wider field of view, making them useful for survey instruments.

NASA officials and a small group of astronomers have been cooking up a preliminary plan to use the telescopes as a component in the proposed "Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)" mission to study exoplanets and "dark energy". As originally conceived, the WFIRST pricetag came to $1.5 billion USD and so budget cuts made it a nonstarter, but the NRO mirrors may change the equation. The two instruments are currently sitting in a clean room in Rochester, New York, the "rent" running to about $100,000 USD a year for storage.

Incidentally, this is not the first time the US intelligence community has helped out the astronomy community. In the 1960s the US worked on a military space station, the "Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL)", which would have had surveillance functions. MOL was canceled in 1969, leaving behind a set of six 1.8 meter (72 inch) mirrors; they were put to good use in the "Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT)", which went into operation on Mount Hopkins in Arizona in 1979. All six mirrors were placed in a common frame to come to a single focus, giving the equivalent of a single 4.5 meter (172 inch) telescope. It was one of the first modern advanced-technology astronomical telescopes. It was replaced in the late 1990s on the same site with a new telescope featuring a single 6.5 meter (256 inch) mirror.

* As discussed by a note in THE ECONOMIST, it is well known that cephalopods -- octopus, squids, cuttlefish, and so on -- can camouflage themselves using color-changing cells known as "chromatophores". Now Australian researchers have found just how adept they are at the game through observations of a cuttlefish named Sepia plangon. During courtship rituals, male cuttlefish will display color patterns to attract females; that's not news, but the males have an additional trick in that they only display the patterns on the side of the body facing the female. On the other side, they mimic a female, throwing potential rivals off the scent.

Sepia plangon

* Everybody is familiar with the little jumping spiders that we can see hunting mosquitoes and the like, creeping up to pounce on them. The Evarcha culicivora spider of Kenya is distinctive among jumping spiders because of its specialized diet: it feeds on female mosquitoes that have had a blood meal. In a sense, the "vampire spider", as it's called, is a parasite of a parasite, stealing the blood the mosquito stole from a host animal.

So how does the vampire spider determine a likely meal? Researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand conducted an investigation to find out. One issue confronting the spider is that it has to sort out male mosquitoes, which don't drink blood, from female mosquitoes, which do. It turns out that male mosquitoes have more elaborate, feathery antenna to pick up the scent of females; jumping spiders have good eyesight, but how to prove the spiders could notice the difference?

Taking another cue from horror tales, the New Zealander researchers assembled "Frankenstein mosquitoes", building hybrids of the corpses of large, blood-fed females with male heads, slender male corpses with female heads, and every other possible combination. The spiders showed a clear bias towards the corpses of intact, blood-gorged females -- while demonstrating a bias away from Frankensteins with male heads. Spiders were shown 3D animations and similarly showed a bias towards female heads, with their less elaborate antenna.



* E-BOOKS PLUS: It was mentioned here last year that e-books hadn't really acquired the various extra features and frills that so often accompany video DVDs. That was then, this is now; as reported by THE ECONOMIST's arts and culture blogger, Prospero ("Truly Moving Literature", 21 February 2012), e-book publishers are now starting to exploit the dynamic potential of digital media.

e-books, the new frontier

Multimedia enhancement only involves a small proportion of e-book titles Children's books were first to get the bells and whistles, but it hasn't worked for adult fiction, probably because most adults who read novels don't really have much use for auxiliary videos or whatever. A British experiment named "Enhanced Editions" to add author videos and such to best-selling e-novels was a bust; nobody wanted to pay extra for the frills, and Enhanced Editions was given up in 2011.

However, multimedia enhancement works very well elsewhere, for example in biographies, cookbooks, and science works. Penguin's upcoming biography of Malcolm X, for example, includes rare archival footage and an interactive map of Harlem. The biography MUHAMMAD ALI now comes with audio clips of Ali's well-known clever self-promotional raps: "Float like a butterfly -- sting like a bee!" The e-book editions Richard Dawkins' THE MAGIC OF REALITY and E.O. Wilson's LIFE ON EARTH are well-crafted fusions of documentary and textbook.

Classics proved a little harder to crack, but the enhancement business seems to picking up there. After a number of fumbles, a multimedia edition of T.S. Eliot's THE WASTE LAND proved entirely profitable for publisher Faber & Faber, with the e-book adding in Eliot's original manuscript with footnotes, along with video and audio recordings of the poem in performance. Soon Faber will reach farther and publish an enhanced version Shakespeare's sonnets. Penguin, meanwhile, chose as its inaugural "amplified edition" Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD, featuring archival photos of Jack Kerouac's original manuscript typed on a scroll, along with snapshots of his fellow Beats, video interviews and maps of Kerouac's cross-country journey.

Despite the poor initial reception, publishers still think that there are still possibilities in enhancing modern fiction. The enhanced edition of George R.R. Martin's fantasy epic GAME OF THRONES links the names of characters to a glossary of clans and furnishes a one-touch map, while Ken Follett's FALL OF GIANTS includes a custom soundscape. Novels with a background soundtrack? The idea is intriguing, allowing multimedia to make the reading of a fictional work more engrossing, instead of distracting from it.

Whether such "amplified" novels will sell still remains an open question. Where there seems to be much more potential is with fiction built from the ground up with multimedia in mind. Such works are now beginning to appear, unsurprisingly being aimed at young adults. Penguin's CHOPSTICKS, a romance for young adults, uses digital scrapbooking and bits of text interspersed with music tracks and YouTube clips. Open Road's GIFT is a ghost story told with audio tracks and music videos, as well as a graphic novel with sound and visual effects. Dan Franklin, in charge of digital publishing at Random House UK, says that the best projects will be born digital, an imaginative fusing of form and content: "It's all about inventing things the reader doesn't know yet that they'll love."



* READYSET GO! WIRED Online blogs reported on a new gimmick, a battery-backed power module named the "ReadySet", from San Francisco-based Fenix International. It's a box with a colorful ruggedized plastic case that can store 54 watt-hours of electricity in the lead-acid battery inside of it. The front of the ReadySet features four ports -- two USB slots, and two 12-volt car cigarette lighter adapter ports -- to provide power to devices. There are positive and negative terminals on the back to allow it to connect to different power-generating sources; it comes with a solar panel, and an AC plug for charging up off the grid. It features a power-management system to allow it to adapt to the different power sources and avoid full discharges that could damage the battery. The product also comes with an LED lamp.

There's nothing very unfamiliar about the ReadySet as technology, but it is a neatly-tailored solution for its intended market: electrical power for villages off the grid in undeveloped nations, a market amounting to 1.5 billion people. The founders of Fenix International, Mike Lin and Brian Warshawsky, had started out with the intent of supporting the One Laptop Per Child effort, but decided that there was a more general need for power in the back country, a need that people were addressing with crude tools such as car batteries -- charged up in the city and hauled out to the countryside -- and diesel generators. A tidier solution, one that didn't leak battery acid or make inefficient use of energy, seemed like it was needed.

ReadySet has been in use in Africa for over a year now and does the job very neatly, not only providing the ability to recharge almost all electronic gadgets villagers own, but capable of drawing power from almost any power source -- not just the solar panel, but windmills; water wheels; or a bicycle, with an adapter kit available to allow a standard bike to be used to generate electricity, providing a full charge with about an hour's pedaling. One village has even used a donkey to spin a generator.

Fenix has focused on a pragmatic business model, intended to turn a profit. By developing world standards ReadySet is expensive, running about $150 USD. That puts it out of reach of most poor folk, and so Fenix decided not to sell to them, instead pitching the product to businesses. Fenix's prime targets are mobile telephone operators, with Fenix pointing out that if poor phone users had more power, they'd use up phone minutes more quickly, meaning more profits for phone operators.


South Africa's 100-million subscriber MTN Group liked the idea and has been promoting the ReadySet in its stores in Uganda, selling it to local entrepreneurs who act as "middlemen" in the supply of power. Other mobile operators are also getting on board. The result has been a network of mom-&-pop "micro-utilities" that ask for roughly 25 cents to charge up a phone. Typically each such little business makes about $40 USD a month from the service, meaning the ReadySet pays itself off in less than half a year. The economics are boosted by the use of solar or other cheap and convenient energy sources instead of diesel.

ReadySet users are proving ingenious in coming up with schemes for powering and utilizing the box. Fenix recently went public on the Kickstarter crowdsource website with the ReadySet, a somewhat unusual measure for a product already developed and in operational use. What Fenix hopes to get out of Kickstarter is ideas for improving the ReadySet and making better use of it. It will be interesting to see where the concept will be ten years down the road.



* VIDEO GAMES CONQUER THE WORLD (1): THE ECONOMIST ran a survey on video games ("All The World's A Game" by Tim Cross) in the 10 December 2011 issue, arguing that video games are no longer merely kid stuff, an entertainment on the margins. Nowdays they rival movies in public impact and economic significance; indeed, video games seem to be overtaking movies in some ways. The video game MODERN WARFARE 3 was released in November 2011 and racked up sales of $750 million USD in five days. No movie has come close to pulling in that kind of cash that fast. The global video game market is currently estimated at well over $50 billion USD a year -- twice as much as recorded music, about a quarter more than the magazine business, and about 60% of the movie industry -- and is growing rapidly. By 2015, video games are expected to be hauling in over $80 billion USD a year.

It's not just geeky teenagers who are playing any more either, the average age of the American player being 37 -- and 42% of them are women. Even one in three households inhabited by over-50s plays video games. To be sure, the shift towards middle-aged gamers is partly due to the fact that kids who played CENTIPEDE and PAC-MAN in their youth have got older and haven't given up their taste for games. However, games have also diversified into different tastes, with players building up farms in FARMVILLE or engaged in casual play with ANGRY BIRDS on a smartphone. Indeed, while video games are stereotyped as bloodthirsty "shooter" games, those are only a component of the whole, which includes strategy, sports, business, and puzzle games. Players can have fun by themselves with a game on a PC or tablet, or get on the internet to join into "massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs)" such as WORLD OF WARCRAFT, with hundreds of thousands of players.


The USA is the biggest market for games, with players spending well more than ten billion dollars a year on gaming. Most of the money goes into gaming on consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 or Nintendo's Wii. Consoles also dominate in Britain, the fifth-largest gaming market, though on the Continent, particularly Germany, PC-based games predominate. China is the second biggest market and growing rapidly; the Chinese market is mostly oriented towards online games played on PCs, since consoles are too expensive for most consumers and rampant software piracy there has pushed game developers towards online environments that they can control.

Japan is the third-biggest market, but gaming there tends to follow its own rules. Despite Japanese game classics such as PAC-MAN, gamers in other countries don't generally warm to Japanese games, while Japanese gamers don't tend to like games from other countries. South Korea, the fourth-biggest market, is dominated by PC and online games.

* Back in the 1980s, games were certainly kid stuff, with Sega and Nintendo offering play with cutesy hedgehogs and energetic little Italian plumbers. If any landmark identifies when video games began to shift to the mainstream, it was when Sony introduced the PlayStation console in December 1994. Sony was after a different market, 20-somethings and 30-somethings, accordingly offering more sophisticated games and gameplay backed up by an effective marketing campaign.

Nintendo Wii

The next big expansion was with the introduction of the Nintendo Wii console in 2006. It wasn't just the Wii motion-sensitive remote control that made it a success; Nintendo took care to make it easy to use, and expanded gaming to physical activities that drew in women, families, and others who hadn't been interested in video games before. Sales of the Wii quickly outstripped those of the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360. Microsoft later hit back with the Kinect gesture-recognition system for the Xbox 360, with Kinect not only proving a smash hit, but also helping to make machine gesture recognition -- long a lab toy or sci-fi video gimmick -- an increasingly practical reality.

Nowdays, it's the smartphone that's the leading edge of expansion for the gaming world; people who wouldn't have bothered with video games have phones that allow them to kill time with games when they're stuck waiting at an airport or whatever. A modern smartphone is a lot brainier than the original PlayStation, let alone the consoles of the 1980s, and a lot of energy is being put into developing games for smartphones.

The internet of course has done a lot to boost games, and not just because of the rise of MMORPEGs. It's also allowed small game developers to come up with simple, clever games to compete with the glitzy mega-games developed at great expense by the big boys of the gaming industry, and sell those simple clever games online.

The games industry is not running out of steam, either; change is normal to game developers, and whether they like it or not, they're used to it. Gaming technology has also advanced practical simulations, with applications ranging from military training to molecular biology to virtual product presentations. The industry has even spawned a management technique, "gamification", that applies ideas from game design to actually get work done. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE TORPEDO (5): After obtaining a contract with the Royal Navy, Whitehead international interest in his torpedo picked up sharply. Whitehead's earlier contacts with the French government had gone nowhere, but once the French realized that the British were acquiring Whitehead torpedoes, France had to have them as well, and so France became another one of Whitehead's clients. With lump sum payments for manufacturing rights, plus royalties, and direct sales of torpedoes made at Fiume, money was beginning to pour in.

Not everyone paid him for his invention, however, with a Berlin firm, L. Schwartzkopff & Company, going into production of the "Schwartzkopff torpedo", which was a close copy of the Whitehead weapon, the only difference being that it was made of "phosphor bronze" instead of steel. That made the German weapon more resistant to corrosion -- an important factor because at the time torpedoes were not "load and shoot" weapons; they had to be calibrated with test runs before being put into service, and Whitehead torpedoes had to be carefully cleaned after immersion in salt water to prevent corrosion. That wasn't the case with the Schwartzkopff torpedo, though that benefit came with a higher pricetag.

The German firm may have obtained the plans for the torpedo by burglarizing an office at the Fiume plant; there had been break-in, with plans taken away, but nobody was ever arrested and nobody ever found out who did it. As annoyed as Whitehead no doubt was, there wasn't much he could do about it, since he didn't trust patents and hadn't taken them out on his torpedo inventions, preferring instead to rely on confidentiality agreements and his amateurish security arrangements, which were only too easily breached. The German product piracy was nothing more than an annoyance in practice, the demand for torpedoes growing so strong that Whitehead couldn't build enough torpedoes to meet the need. Indeed, for the time being the Imperial German Navy was buying all their torpedoes from Whitehead, not Schwartzkopff.

Whitehead was suspicious that the Americans had been behind the break-in, since they'd been very evasive in conversations about cutting a deal, but in hindsight they were demonstrably innocent. In 1869, the US Navy (USN) had established a "Navy Torpedo Station (NTS)" at Newport, Rhode Island, to develop torpedoes and their associated gear, with the organization deciding to follow Whitehead's lead and develop a compressed-air torpedo. Engineers at the NTS kept as well abreast of what Whitehead was doing as as they could, but they were simply not in his league, unable to fabricate satisfactory compressed-air vessels or solve the depth-keeping problem -- they never got their hands on the stolen plans. Indeed, a worker at the Woolrich Arsenal tried to sell the Americans a set of stolen torpedo plans, to be contemptuously rejected. The Americans might not have been any good at torpedo design, but at least they were being scrupulous. The USN gave up on torpedoes for the moment in 1874.

* While inventors who get the jump on a new market sometimes become complacent and fall behind, Whitehead was determined to stay on the leading edge. In 1875, with the Imperial German Navy requesting a torpedo with a speed of 39 KPH (18 MPH / 16 knots) over 550 meters (605 yards), Whitehead introduced a new model torpedo, the "14 Inch Fiume Mark I", a 35.6 centimeter torpedo that leveraged off technology developed by the Woolrich Arsenal. The long top and bottom fins were discarded -- they weren't needed with contrarotating propellers -- as was the two-cylinder vee engine, Whitehead obtaining a version of the British-designed three-cylinder radial engine from the Peter Brotherhood firm of Peterborough in Britain. This was a tidy device with a weight of only 15.9 kilograms (35 pounds) and a power output of 30 kW (40 HP).

The pressure vessel was enhanced to tolerate 68 atmospheres, improving speed and range. In addition, the balance chamber was relocated from behind the warhead to behind the pressure vessel, while pneumatically-driven servomotors provided stronger actuation of the torpedo's control surfaces. Orders poured in for the improved torpedo, with Norway, Sweden, and Denmark all obtaining manufacturing rights for Whitehead torpedoes. The British switched from production of their 16 Inch Mark I* RL to a modified version of the 14 Inch Fiume Mark I, designated the "14 Inch Mark I* RL".

The torpedo had made Whitehead a wealthy and influential man, visited often by very important persons who were lavishly entertained at his household. He was by no means regarded as one of the gauche rich, being modest in his conduct, and also conscientious in the management of his employees in his factory. His torpedo business kept on growing: Russia and Turkey obtained rights to the Whitehead torpedo in 1876; Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Chile, and Greece followed in 1877. The torpedo had touched off an international arms race, nations being eager to obtain it lest their adversaries get it first.

Whitehead with trials torpedo

Whitehead, though inclined to nonviolence, had no great misgivings about his invention and its popularity, believing that its very destructiveness made it a deterrent to war. That was a common belief among arms manufacturers at the time, though events would later prove that instead of making war too dreadful to happen, wars happened anyway and were all the more dreadful as a result. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by WIRED magazine Laika Entertainment, which scored a hit with their 2009 movie version of Neil Gaiman's story CORALINE, hopes to score another hit with their new animated movie, PARANORMAN -- which rejects computer graphics in favor of traditional stop-motion animation.

That's not completely unusual these days, Britain's Nick Park having kept the faith with traditional "claymation" animation, but Laika did break new ground by using a 3D printer system produce parts for PARANORMAN scenes. The lion's share of the work was on the faces, with printed components allowing the hero, Norman, to generate 1.5 million different expressions. The 27 characters in the movie required the generation of 31,000 parts, which had to be organized in a "face library". The eyes of the characters can look in all directions and can blink, with the eye rig featuring 40 parts, some of them 3D printed.


Characters had to be precisely positioned with wires or manually-controlled XYZ armatures. The animators had to churn out over 244,000 frames to make up the movie, with the frames taken by standard Canon digital SLR cameras, mounted on slider rigs to allow them to shift viewpoint in a controlled fashion. The face pieces did leave seams after being photographed that had to be edited out of the imagery.

* Vast numbers of poor folk around the world suffer from short-sightedness, but cannot afford glasses to correct their visual impairment. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, Joshua Silver, a physicist at the University of Oxford, has been moonlighting on a project to produce cheap, self-adjustable glasses.

Silver points out that the idea of adjustable glasses is not at all new, with experiments going back to the late 19th century. He started tinkering with interior space to change their curvature. His latest version is much refined, being far lighter and more elegant, using a transparent silicone fluid instead of water. Small syringes are attached to the sides of the frame and adjusted with dials to change the optical curvature; when the glasses are properly adjusted, the user seals off the lenses with clips and then stows the syringes.

Silver's adjustable glasses aren't just lab prototypes any more, either. He's set up a front company, the "Center for Vision in the Developing World (CVDW)", to promote his glasses, with tens of thousands already made and in trials in places such as rural India and China. Silver estimates that they should cost about $20 USD a pair in mass production, with the product delivered as a kit with instructions and an eye chart.

* Vacuum tubes once ruled electronics, but the rise of solid-state electronics technology generally put paid to them in the 1960s, with vacuum tubes only surviving in high-power communications applications. As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW online, however, researchers at the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) have developed a 21st-century nanoscale vacuum device that has a number of advantages over solid-state devices.

A classic vacuum tube was basically in the form of a glass bulb, with an electrically heated filament at one end, a positively charged plate at the other end, and a grid element in between; changing the voltage on the grid would turn electron flow from filament to plate on or off, allowing a small signal to modulate a more powerful one. Vacuum tubes were big, relatively fragile, and power-hungry, but they could operate at high frequencies, since electrons fly more rapidly through free space than they do through a solid-state channel. Vacuum tubes were also very resistant to disruptions by radiation, while solid-state systems have to be "radiation hardened" for operation in space.

Meyya Meyyappan, an engineer at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California, has helped develop a "nano vacuum tube," the device being made by etching a tiny cavity in phosphorous-doped silicon. The cavity is bordered by three electrodes: a source, gate, and drain. The source and drain are separated by just 150 nanometers, while the gate sits on top. Electrons are emitted from the source thanks to a voltage applied across it and the drain, while the gate controls the electron flow across the cavity. The device is inherently radiation-hardened and, with an ability to operate at up to 460 gigahertz, about ten times faster than the fastest silicon transistors.

High-speed solid-state devices have traditionally used gallium arsenide instead of silicon, but gallium arsenide is expensive. The nano vacuum tube is potentially cheap to make, and it doesn't require a hard vacuum, the cavity being so short that there are few collisions between electrons and air molecules. However, the nano vacuum tube does have the problem of requiring operating voltages of ten volts or more, making it incompatible with ordinary solid-state circuits. That may be a reasonable tradeoff for some applications, and work continues to bring the device to a production state.



* LAND PLANTS & ICE AGES: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW ("Did Plants Freeze The Planet?" by Sid Perkins, 1 February 2012), a new study suggests that when plants finally emerged onto land about a half billion years ago, they drew up so much carbon dioxide that they plunged the Earth into a major ice age.

About 460 million years ago, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere ranged somewhere between 14 and 22 times the current level, and the average global temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than it is now, despite the fact that the Sun was about 6% dimmer. Climate models suggest that widespread glaciations couldn't take place at that time unless CO2 levels dropped to about eight times what they are at present, according to Tim Lenton, an Earth scientist at the University of Exeter in the UK.

However, during a 10-million-year period that began about 455 million years ago, Earth experienced two major glaciations. At the time, the supercontinent Gondwana was on top of or near the South Pole, as Antarctica is today; at the height of these ice ages, much of Gondwana was under sheets of ice, which may have led to mass extinctions in surrounding shallow seas. These ice ages have been known for some time, but their cause has been puzzling. Chemical weathering of silicate rocks into carbonates will draw CO2 from the atmosphere; however, that process is slow, certainly not fast enough to account for the relatively sudden onset of the ice ages.

a frigid Earth

Lenton and his colleagues suspect that the emergence of land plants may have been the cause, and have performed experiments to see if their idea holds water. In one set of tests, the team placed bits of common silicate rocks that had cooled from molten material, such as granite and andesite, in sealed beakers for 130 days along with a modern-day species of moss believed to be similar to the first land plants, which didn't have the "vascular" tissues that help circulate water throughout the plant. In the other set of beakers, the team placed rocks and water but no moss.

Mosses will break down rocks, and in this experiment the moss accelerated the of calcium from andesite by a factor of 3.6 and the weathering of magnesium from the same rock by a factor of 5.4, creating feedstocks for the formation of calcium and magnesium carbonates. Plugging these findings into a model that assumed the presence of land plants over 15% of the Earth's surface -- the rough percentage of wetlands on the Earth's surface today, mosses only growing well in damp environments -- demonstrated that CO2 levels would drop to about 8.4 times that of the present. Given the dim sun, the result would be widespread glaciation.

The experiment also showed moss increased rates of weathering of iron and phosphorus from granite by 60 and 170 times, respectively. These elements don't form carbonates, but they are plant nutrients, and large quantities of them could have flowed into shallow waters off the shores of Gondwana, leading to algal blooms. That could explain two other anomalies associated with the era: large amounts of organic-rich shales deposited as nearshore sediments, and an unusually high proportion of carbon-13 isotopes in the rocks. Biosystems tend to concentrate carbon-13, and so an excess hints at biological activity.

Charles Wellman, a paleobotanist at the University of Sheffield in the UK, wasn't involved in the study but was impressed, saying the moss used in the experiment is likely a fair analog for the primitive nonvascular plants of that era "and could have had a strong effect on climate. It increased the weathering rate rather definitely."

Few see the idea that the introduction of or major changes in plant life on the surface of the Earth could lead to climate changes as implausible. It should be noted again that there were two major glaciations in this era, the first corresponding to the introduction of nonvascular plants. The second, beginning about 445 million years ago, ten million years after the first, seems to correspond to the introduction of vascular plants, whose spores could expand more widely into drier environments. That would lead to increased plant cover and an even more severe ice age, with the evidence showing that the second ice age was indeed the stronger of the two.



* NO OLYMPIC GOLD: Olympic games excitement is now in progress in London, with all the world rooting for their home team players. As reported by an article from TIME Online ("London's Loss? Why Hosting the Olympics Is Bad Business" by Josh Sanburn, 26 July 2012), although the world's nations compete energetically to host the games, the business case for doing so just isn't that good.

The Olympics represent a major financial risk. Every Olympics since 1960 has overrun its budget, by an average of about 180% -- and find out that the facilities set up for the Games may end up underutilized after the Games are over. The Barcelona Games of 1992 were particularly sobering, since they went over budget by a staggering 417%; the Beijing Games of 2008 only ran 4% over budget, but the Chinese still didn't end up with much of long term value. Beijing's Bird's Nest, a 91,000-seat stadium that wowed the world, has become a temporary man-made ski slope, a mildly popular tourist destination -- and a white elephant.

Preparations for the London Games weren't well-managed, badly breaking budget and demonstrating the shadowy side of "Olympic fever". Bent Flyvbjerg, a co-author of a new University of Oxford study that inspected Olympic budgeting, said: "Politicians lowball the budgets in order to get the Olympics. It's simply easier to get it approved. And people are just optimistic about most things, especially large projects like these."

London Olympics 2012 are go

Flyvbjerg adds that political leaders are attracted to landing the games for their country because of the public prestige they win for doing so, but are either forgetting about or trying to dodge the bullet of going off the rails financially. Some observers downplay the cost overruns, pointing out that hosting the Olympics is an enormous challenge, and it's simply unreasonable to expect tidy budgeting discipline. However, the question remains of whether the investment ends up being wise. Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist commented: "The competition alone has each city bidding higher and higher until it outweighs the benefits. Then they celebrate like they won the World Series. A lot of people will benefit from the Games, like construction companies, but that doesn't mean the city benefits."

Cities often use the Olympics to push through major new civic infrastructure projects. Barcelona, despite the cost overruns, successfully remade itself through investments in housing developments and public transportation. Still, many economists suggest that if a city wants to modernize its infrastructure, there are probably more effective and cheaper ways of doing it than by hosting the Olympics.

London has focused Olympic investment on run-down East London. Flyvbjerg commented: "East London is a deprived area that needs a boost. If all goes well, I think it will be successful for East London. I think that the Olympics could come to stand as an example that the Games could do some good for the part of the city where it's implemented."

But for the rest of the city? That's not so clear. It's also not so clear whether facilities built for the London Olympics will be particularly useful to any part of London after the Games are over -- and certainly not at all clear whether there might have been smarter approaches to urban development.

* It would of course be insensible to throw cold water on Olympic enthusiasm; the show's on, we should enjoy it for what it offers. That is a notion that escaped Mitt Romney in a visit to the UK on the eve of the games in which he managed to get the British press into an uproar though a series of awkwardly chosen comments. On examination, no one of Romney's remarks was an outright affront, and any one of them might have been ignored with no great difficulty, but delivering them in a string demonstrated a startling lack of finesse.

Jonathan Freedland of THE GUARDIAN newspaper gave a rundown on the matter that combined dry British wit with a touch of acid and certain perceptiveness, starting by saying he was surprised that the Olympics opening did not set off a moment of time to thank Mitt Romney ...


... for doing what, until Thursday, neither [Prime Minister] David Cameron, [London Mayor] Boris Johnson or [London Olympics Committee Chairman] Sebastian Coe had managed to do: silencing all but the grumpiest skeptics and uniting the British people in enthusiastic determination to enjoy the London Olympics.

Because we're quite happy to whinge endlessly about security, transport and ticketing failures -- but we'll be damned if we're going to hear it from some perfect-toothed American. Now we'll get behind the Games just to spite him ...

[We saw] the US politician lurch from one error to another ... most damagingly, appearing to diss London 2012 on the very eve of the Games ... For an American politician, Britain is an easy date: just praise the country as a steadfast ally, mention Churchill a couple of times and we'll roll over ... So what explains how an accomplished politician, with the resilience to have prevailed in a bruising primary campaign, could mess up so badly? The answer says a lot about Romney -- and a fair bit about the dire state of today's Republican party.

In the first category comes the observation that, despite having sought the presidency twice and served as a state governor, Romney is not really a politician at all -- not in the Bill Clinton sense of someone who thinks, talks and breathes politically, constantly calculating the likely impact of both words and deeds. Instead Romney speaks and acts like the chief executive he was for so long ... corporate titans, so used to the nodding appreciation of yes men, can lack elementary tact and diplomacy, failing to weigh their words for tone, timing and likely reception ...

It seems that Romney is not a politician in his marrow, which may help explain the acrobatic extent of the flip-flops he has performed in his career. Hard to credit now that he attacked Teddy Kennedy from the Left over gay rights during their 1994 senate race in Massachusetts and that, as governor of that traditionally liberal state in 2006, he enacted healthcare reform that was, if anything, more progressive than the ObamaCare legislation he now opposes. By 2012, to win the support of the Republican Right, Romney had turned 180 degrees, bowing to every aspect of their culturally conservative worldview ...

Romney [also] stumbled in London because he has little apparent interest in the world beyond America's shores. This week he gave his first major foreign policy speech in nine months. Unlike both Obama and John McCain in 2008, his campaign has no senior foreign policy staffer ... When Romney has offered a view, it has been either confused, undiplomatic or both ...

In this, Romney is fully in step with the party he now leads. For today's Republican party is characterised by a kind of bellicose ignorance towards the rest of the world, contemptuous of Obama's attempts to show respect to foreigners, crudely aggressive towards those deemed the US's enemies, uninterested in its friends. Take the response of Romney's allies to the London debacle ... one media cheerleader dismissed ... Britain as "a second-rate, semi-degenerate nation".

This, remember, is the party that slammed John Kerry for the crime of speaking French. Its antics, like those of the man it has chosen for the presidency, would be funny were the Republican party not aspiring to hold an office that is still mighty and, for the rest of the world, deadly serious.


Freedland's comments do reflect a certain amount of ruffled British feathers, and as Romney's defenders point out, it's not like he's going to suffer from losing the voters' confidence in Hertfordshire. However, even factoring that in, Romney's stumbling in the UK demonstrated ineptitude, showing that through some mix of his personal background and the pressures of the extreme wing of his party, he finds it difficult to take away any of Barack Obama's presidential aura, which Obama deliberately cultivates, possibly to excess but certainly with some success.

As Freedland commented, the problem ultimately isn't Romney, but the grip ultra-conservatives have on the Republican party. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was in his time labeled an extremist -- but in hindsight Goldwater, at least after his drubbing by Lyndon Johnson in the US presidential election of 1964, sounded many notes of sensibility, moderation, and compromise. In 1996, two years before his death in 1998, Goldwater could see with a bit of shock exactly what was happening to his party, telling his Senate colleague Bob Dole: "We're the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?



* GO WITH THE CROWD (3): In related news of pedestrian traffic modeling, another article from THE ECONOMIST ("Please Be Seated", 3 September 2011), discussed a scheme devised by Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at Fermilab near Chicago, for a more efficient means of boarding airliners. Steffen got interested in the idea while he was stuck in a long queue waiting to get on a flight, and from 2008 began to tinker with computer simulations to check out his ideas, leading to a paper outlining his suggestions.

Steffen says that two things slow down the boarding process. The first is that passengers are often forced to wait in the aisle while those ahead of them stow their luggage and then get out of the way. The second is that passengers already seated in aisle or middle seats often have to get up and move into the aisle to let others take seats nearer the window. Steffen's proposal reduces the first problem and eliminates the second.

In essence, while traditional boarding schemes are by rows, working back towards the passenger door, Steffen proses boarding by "columns" in an alternating fashion, one scheme being:

The same four steps are then repeated for the middle and then the aisle seats. Of course, the particular sequence of even versus odd, right versus left, doesn't matter much, just as long as the alternating pattern holds. The benefit of boarding alternative sides while skipping a row is that it makes it easier for passengers to stow baggage; of course, the benefit of boarding by columns is obvious, nobody has to get up to let someone in.

Steffen was able to test his concept with a mock Boeing 757 jetliner fuselage and 72 passengers. He tried a number of different boarding schemes as controls, to find that the traditional block boarding scheme was the slowest, at 7 minutes; his optimized scheme cut the time in half. Airlines haven't expressed much interest in the scheme yet, but it seems practical enough, airline passengers are generally cooperative when they board airliners, and the ticketing system could assign the appropriate boarding sequence number along with a ticket.

It might seem like it's too trivial of a thing for airline executives to worry about, but in their cutthroat business, trivialities can be much more important than they appear. Every minute an airliner sits at a terminal instead of in flight is a minute in which it is wasting money, at a rate of about $30 USD a minute. If a big carrier runs 1,500 flights a day, saving six minutes per flight would add up to $100 million USD a year -- and it would make for less flustered passengers as well. [END OF SERIES]



* THE TORPEDO (4): Whitehead's arrangement with the Imperial Austrian Navy for supply of his auto-mobile torpedoes allowed him to seek other customers as he pleased, and so Whitehead began to write foreign governments to sell his weapon. He got little response at first; torpedoes in various forms were nothing new, and few seemed to appreciate that his auto-mobile torpedo was in a different league than anything else available. However, the Royal Navy learned of the device, and in 1869 invited Whitehead to come back home and demonstrate his weapon. He jumped at the chance, traveling to Britain in June 1870 to make arrangements for the trials, obtaining an iron paddle-wheel steamer named the OBERON and arranging for the fit of an underwater torpedo tube to the vessel.

Whitehead then returned to Fiume to collect the torpedoes for the trials, hauling them across Europe by train. There were some problems with French officials -- France was at war with Prussia at the moment and things were not going well, with defeat just down the road, making the French jumpy at an Englishman who was hauling mysterious items in cases that he refused to open. Whitehead was arrested, but the British embassy intervened on his behalf and he was quickly released.

The trials began in the Medway estuary on 31 August 1870. They didn't get off to a perfect start, the torpedo being frustrated by tidal flows -- something that Whitehead hadn't factored on, since tides weren't a real factor in the Adriatic. That could have done nothing to reassure the Admiralty examination board, the board already finding Whitehead exasperating because he refused to tell them any more about the torpedo than he absolutely had to. However, Whitehead was able to quickly make adjustments and get back on track. Other difficulties arose, one being that the guide rails in the torpedo tube had been improperly installed, affecting the aim of the weapon; that problem was resolved in turn and the aim of the torpedoes improved significantly. The demonstration ended in a torpedo sinking an old coal hulk with a satisfactory bang.

The examination board was generally impressed but had reservations, and Whitehead had competition. Two Royal Navy officers, Captain John Harvey and Commander Frederick Harvey -- uncle and nephew respectively -- had come up with a variation on Fulton's towed torpedo, using a "paravane" or "water wing" to allow the charge to be towed at about a 45-degree angle from the line of motion of the tow vessel. The Royal Navy was also investigating the Harvey torpedo and judged it competitive to Whitehead's weapon as it was at the time. However, the Admiralty took enough stock in Whitehead's torpedoes to sign a contract with him in 1871 to obtain torpedoes from Fiume, as well as build them under license in Britain.

The agreement stipulated that the Royal Navy be kept up to date on all technical improvements to the Whitehead torpedo -- Whitehead similarly would have access to all enhancements the British made, and they would prove ingenious themselves -- and that selected Royal Navy officers were to be trained on the weapon. Thanks to Whitehead's paranoia, the selected officers were run through the gauntlet of his notions of security, which they found theatrical and silly.

A section of Royal Laboratory at the Woolrich Arsenal in Britain was set aside for development of the Whitehead torpedo, with the British quickly developing their first production torpedo, the "16 Inch Mark I* RL", introduced in 1872. It was by no means a pure copy of the Whitehead design, in particular featuring contrarotating, coaxial propellers -- without the guard ring -- which helped increase speed to 22 KPH (13.8 MPH / 12 KT), presumably due to both more efficient conversion of stored energy into thrust and reduction of drag due to the tendency of a single prop to force a torpedo to roll. Whitehead liked this change, but he was not so enthusiastic when the Royal Laboratory engineers placed the props behind the rudders, not in front of them as in the Fiume designs. The two groups would maintain that particular difference for decades; it seemed to work about as well either way.

The Woolrich engineers were also able to come up with an improved air chamber that supported still higher pressures. Whitehead had abandoned his obscure rotary-style compressed-air engine by that time in favor of a straightforward two-cylinder vee piston unit that was more efficient and reliable. However, after employing the new Whitehead engine for a time, the British went on to a three-cylinder radial piston unit.

The deal with the Royal Navy was a big boost to Whitehead, but he was still faced with challenges -- one of the big ones being that the STF group had gone bankrupt, leaving him with the prospect of having no facility where he could manufacture his torpedoes. Of course, Whitehead was used to dealing with challenges; working with his son-in-law -- an ex-Austrian Imperial Navy officer named Count Georg Hoyos -- Whitehead was able to buy out the Fiume facility in 1872, setting himself up on his own as "Silurificio [Torpedo Factory] Whitehead", with Hoyos as a partner. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: In yet another exercise in genetic analysis, AAAS SCIENCE NOW reports that, while people generally find crabapples inedible, it turns out that domesticated apples are more closely related to crabapples than they are to more appetizing wild apple species.

Apples originated in what is now Kazakhstan, then spread along the Silk Road trading route thousands of years ago, with the Romans bringing sweet apples into Europe. That was almost all that was traditionally known about the origins of the domestic apple. A study by an international group of researchers focused on rapidly evolving DNA regions known as "microsatellites" from 839 apple samples, representing five species ranging from Spain to China. The study found that the apple was initially domesticated from wild Asian species, but was then crossed with crabapples, possibly to make them hardier.


The end result was that the most common genes in domestic applies are derived from the crabapple. The study found no evidence of genetic bottlenecks -- a severe narrowing of genetic diversity -- in domesticated apples, a pattern that contrasts with many other domesticated crops, which were often derived from a small subset of a wild population.

* While much has been made of the overuse of antibiotics in animal husbandry, leading to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as reported by THE ECONOMIST, the similar use of worming agents is leading to the emergence of resistant worms. Sheep and goats are the worst case, with studies in Australia, Brazil and the United States suggest that animals in half or more of farms in many parts of those countries are infested with drug-resistant worms. In some cases, the resistant parasites can shrug off anything we have to throw at them. Studies in Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand also show cattle are increasingly afflicted with resistant worms, while horses infected with resistant worms are showing up in America and Europe.

The tendency has been to administer the drugs indiscriminately, but that approach is guaranteed to generate resistant worms. More selective use of drugs, and use of combination drugs, would help. Farmers may not be happy about that idea, but they need to understand that it's either that, or having no effective treatments when their livestock gets worm infections.

* Scuba divers and others who move from a high pressure environment to a low pressure environment can be afflicted by a dangerous condition called "the bends"; the release of pressure can cause nitrogen to form bubbles in the blood, resulting in intense pain if the bubbles become trapped in joints, or even death if the bubbles form in the lungs or brain. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, sea-going creatures that breathe air such as dolphins can suffer from the bends if they come up from the depths too fast. They have acquired adaptations, such as an ability to store large concentrations of oxygen in the blood, that help deal with the problem. Bruce Rothschild, a paleontologist, got to wondering if the ichthyosaurs -- dolphin-like reptilians from the Mesozoic era, the Great Age of Reptiles -- also had problems with the bends, and decided to investigate.

ichthyosaur fossil

The bends can cut off blood supply to bones, causing them to weaken and even cave in, which can be seen in fossils. Rothschild and his colleagues canvassed the world for ichthyosaur fossils, examining 116 from the Triassic period -- the first of the three parts of the Mesozoic, from 250 to 200 million years ago -- and 190 from the later Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, 200 to 145 million and 145 to 65 million years ago respectively.

The assumption at the outset was that the oldest fossils, from the Triassic, would be the most afflicted by the bends, the ichthyosaurs not having acquired adaptations that could deal with the bends early on. Much to Rothschild's surprise, the truth was exactly the opposite: none of the Triassic fossils showed evidence of the bends, while about 15% of the Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils did.

Rothschild believes this makes sense if considered from an ecological point of view. Given that ichthyosaurs were around for about 150 million years, it's likely they acquired adaptations that helped against the bends early on -- species can change dramatically in a few million years, and given the problem posed by the bends, it wouldn't be surprising that adaptations emerged swiftly. However, the early ichthyosaurs lived in a fairly benign environment, where they were not confronted with large predators. From the Jurassic, they were prey for oversized sharks, marine crocodiles, and other big predators, and so they would more often have to swim upward rapidly to escape becoming a meal, giving them the bends. The scenario is speculative but very plausible.



* ANOTHER MONTH: TIME magazine reports that a French farmer is now feeding his cows up to two bottles of wine a day. The cows really like the wine, and drink it down enthusiastically. However, to no surprise it's not really for their benefit, their meat having a "very special texture, beautiful, marbled and tender, which caramelizes while cooking." Of course, even though the cattle aren't getting expensive vintages, such a diet is expensive -- and so is the meat, running about $122 USD per kilogram.

* Although I haven't been remotely as heavily into photography recently as I was a few years ago, just out of curiosity I looked over new camera offerings in Amazon.com to see what was available. I quickly zeroed in on the Canon SX40 HS because it offered 35x zoom magnification, a big jump up from the 20x magnification of my older Canon camera, at a low price. Comments said it also had an impressive low-light capability, which was just as significant to me as the high magnification zoom. Having come into a little money, I decided to buy it.

When it arrived I was eager to try it out. I thought it would be interesting to get some shots of jetliners flying into Denver International Airport; Loveland, Colorado, is more or less under the approach path from the northwest and they fly over often. I'm still about an hour's drive from the airport and so they're flying in at maybe a kilometer height, too high to pick out any details or get a very specific idea of aircraft type. I figured out how to set the camera to multiple exposures -- the camera taking pictures about once a second as long as the shutter button's held down -- and zoomed in on incoming aircraft. Only maybe about one out of 20 came out, but when they did I was astounded that I could get such good shots of something so far away.

Boeing 737 flying into Denver

The Thunderbirds appeared in Cheyenne on 25 July. It was overcast when I went north up the highway, not good for photography, but promised to clear up. I got there early and read a book for a while, with the Thunderbirds roaring in almost precisely at 10:00 AM, just as the sun was coming out. I got hundreds of shots, but I was a bit disappointed when I got back home to sort them out -- they weren't that dramatic an improvement on my old camera.

After working through them, however, I felt more reassured. I was just expecting too much, forgetting how much smaller an F-16 is than a jetliner, and even at that I hadn't been expecting to get more than a handful of good shots. Taking photos of fast-moving jets is not trivial, and, with my expectations reset, I found that I had a reasonable number of first-class photos.

Air Force Thunderbirds over Cheyenne

In fact, I think the new camera may revitalize by photography hobby to an extent by offering new capabilities. I've also been uploading my photo collection to Flickr, giving me a chance to review my past work and consider what I might best do next -- one conclusion being that I didn't absolutely need to find new things to shoot, it would be an asset to the collection just to enhance coverage of the subjects I already had. It's no problem with having a dozen or more photos online of, say, polar bears, if I have good pictures of them. I'm starting to think of taking photo trips again.

* Indeed, for the moment things are looking up a bit after a period of turbulence, particularly after being forced to rethink my website. I figured uploading all 3,000-plus photos in my collection to Flickr would take to the end of August, but I'll be done in a week. One of the things that helped was that the upload gave me a chance to inspect old photos and throw out the junk, about 5% of the total. The collection looks good on Flickr, by the way, at least rating a "B" grade in terms of size and quality in comparison to other users, and definitely an "A" in terms of diversity.

Another difficulty was that after I cut short the JFK assassination series early this year, I ended up tossing a good number of stockpiled articles for the blog, and I've been having problems keeping the stockpile from draining away. I decided to focus on rebuilding it, which I thought would take months, but after about two weeks' worth I'm back up to level or better, and continuing the buildup from there. Indeed, I've got to the point where I as I add a new article to the stockpile I can delete an old one that doesn't seem so interesting on later examination, putting it in my personal notes files.

In addition, although AdBrite still isn't paying off very well, some days I actually bring in reasonable money with it. It's not at all consistent in that respect, but the trendline is upward, and maybe by the end of the year I'll be bringing in a dollar or two a day, enough to pay off the website fees. [ED: It would presently fall over and die, being yet another suggestion leading up to my ultimate conclusion that internet advertising was a bad game in all respects, and should be avoided.]