sep 2012 / last mod aug 2016 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: torpedoes, Chinese defense buildup, video games, drone helicopters for logistics in Afghanistan, AIDS in America, global water supply, African tech hubs & African banks, John Deere exports farm tractors, family planning for the developing world, high-voltage transformers & power grid battery backup, and OTT smartphone apps.

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[FRI 21 SEP 12] THE TORPEDO (10)


* The self-censorship of Chinese social-networking sites -- such as Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter -- was discussed here not long ago. As reported by THE ECONOMIST's online blogs, Chinese internet monitors are finding that as they watch half a billion Chinese online, they are being watched back.

A US-based company named Crimson Hexagon has developed software to track the censoring of posts on Chinese social-media sites. One of the founders of the company, Gary King of Harvard, used the software to monitor activity surrounding 85 sensitive topics, ranging from last year's protests in Inner Mongolia to Ai Weiwei, China's internationally-known artist -- also discussed here not long ago -- and any other subjects that the government would see as controversial. The tracking has been able to identify when posts bearing these terms appear and disappear, and how long it takes for each to be taken down.

A Harvard team used Crimson Hexagon software to build up a database of than 11 million posts that were made on 1,382 Chinese internet forums. The stats suggest about 13% of all posts are censored. One surprising result was that posts critical of the government are not rigorously censored. On the other hand, posts that have the purpose of getting people to assemble, potentially in protest, are swept from the internet within a matter of hours. One observer commented: "The goal [of Chinese censorship] has never been total control. The goal is to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. Total, stifling, straitjacket control is not possible unless they want China to be North Korea, which they don't."

In contrast to the Harvard team's approach, researchers at the University of Hong Kong have developed a program that concentrates solely on Sina Weibo. The program monitors the accounts of 300,000 users who each have more than 1,000 followers. They found that by monitoring Sina Weibo's account-holders' profiles at different times of day they were able to witness the work of the censors almost in real time and to identify individually the posts that they disappeared. The researchers then examined the removed posts to determine what had made them objectionable to the censors. These programs increasingly give a window into censorship in China.

What is interesting about the Chinese approach to censorship is its ambivalence. In a truly authoritarian society, anybody who rocked the boat would be arrested and might well simply disappear. The Chinese government doesn't appear to want to play that game, instead taking cautious measures to head off tangible threats. The Chinese Communist Party wants to maintain its grip on power, but also wants to maintain its aura of legitimacy with the public -- but ultimately, the two objectives do not rub along well.

* An article from THE ECONOMIST discussed front companies -- fictitious firms used as a front for generally illegal operations -- and how easy it is to set one up. Guidelines have been set up the inter-governmental "Financial Action Task Force (FATF)" to provide safeguards against front companies, and more than 180 countries have signed up, but a study by researchers from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia suggested that few are bothering to enforce the rules.

Posing as consultants, the authors asked 3,700 incorporation agents in 182 countries to form companies for them. Almost half of the agents who replied didn't ask for proper identification, and about half of them didn't ask for identification at all. While there's a popular belief that tax havens such as Jersey and the Cayman Islands are convenient places to set up front companies, in reality agents from such places generally followed the rules; in fact, in general compliance was worst in rich countries -- lax standards in the USA were discussed here in 2009 -- with poor countries generally having higher standards.

The authors faked some of their emails so they appeared to come from high-risk entities, such as a Muslim charity in Saudi Arabia that could be assumed to be an al-Qaeda front; one in 17 agents had no qualms about setting up a front company for the charity. When an agent did have qualms about a request to establish a front company, the case of nerves disappeared when the authors offered to pay a premium. American agents were in the bottom rank of scrupulousness. Senator Carl Levin has been attempting to push through laws to make it harder to set up front companies in the USA, only to run into determined resistance not merely from businesses, but from US states with easy rules on incorporations as well.

* We're moving down into the home stretch of a presidential contest that would have to be judged dull except to the partisans involved. How close an election it will be is of course anyone's guess, but the Bovada gambling website is giving odds of 1 for 4 on Obama -- meaning that a bet of $100 USD will only yield $25 if Obama wins -- while giving odds of 3 for 1 on Romney -- lay down $100 USD, get back $300 on a Romney win.

I find the use of such "money line odds" a bit opaque; I have a suspicion they're used to make betting on the likely loser seem more attractive by emphasizing the great payoff, while veiling the comparable likelihood of losing. However, I do take Bovada's political predictions much more seriously than I do those in the media, for the simple reason that Bovada doesn't really care about politics, just about making money. If the Bovada prediction isn't accurate, they can lose their shirts.

I do believe the odds favor Obama. Given two unexciting candidates, I'd judge it's the one who has center stage by virtue of being president who gets the spotlight. If the other guy can't really challenge the incumbent, the other guy is doomed to fade into the shadows. I should emphasize I'm not particularly discouraged by the election, and I won't be upset no matter who wins; the fact that presidents end up appearing as ordinary people, doing a lot of "muddling on through somehow", is to be expected.



* SCIENCE NOTES: There was something of a kerfluffle in the genomics science community recently over a report issued by a study group titled the "Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE)". ENCODE is focused on mapping the functions of the genome, which is all well and good, their work being praised by the science community. What didn't get much praise was the announcement in the ENCODE report that "80% of the genome had a function", which many science publications announced as "the death of junk DNA".

OK, so what is "junk DNA"? In the early days of genome analysis in the 1970s, researchers found out that a small percentage of the genome actually coded for the production of proteins -- which was a surprise, because the genetic code of the genome specified amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Formally speaking, the rest of the genome was simply called by necessary exclusion "noncoding DNA", but it became widely known as "junk DNA".

It is unclear just how popular the term "junk DNA" really was in professional circles, though it certainly did establish itself in the popular science domain. However, over the past few decades the professional community became increasingly impatient with the term "junk DNA". It is known that part of our genome really is junk, for example "fossil genes" -- we've got a broken gene for producing vitamin C, that gene works fine in cats, but we can get scurvy -- and "proviruses", the broken remains of viral genomes that were long ago inserted into our genome. It is also known that some noncoding DNA is functional, providing regulatory functions for the rest of the genome. What the rest of it is doing, nobody is very certain, all we know is that it doesn't code for proteins. Some have more appropriately called this mysterious part of the genome the "dark matter of the genome" or just the "dark genome".

There is still a suspicion that the bulk of the genome doesn't do anything constructive. The ENCODE report jumped into the middle of this uncertainty by claiming that most of the genome did have a function -- but in reality, the ENCODE researchers did little to shine light into the dark genome, since their definition of "functioning gene" was one that demonstrated any activity at all. One of the recognized components of true "junk DNA" are genes that don't do anything but replicate themselves, cluttering up the genome with copies of themselves; critics pointed out that by the ENCODE definition, these genes are "functional".

Critics also pointed out awkward facts such as the reality that one species may have a far bigger genome than a closely related and similar species. Why the disparity? The simple fact that we don't have a real answer to that question suggests the mysteries of the dark genome are far from resolved. There was particular annoyance because creationists played up the ENCODE report as justifying their views -- creationists don't like the idea of "junk DNA" because it implies the genome isn't "Intelligently Designed", and they are also fond of mining scientific controversies as a means of causing trouble.

In reality, the whole question of junk DNA is irrelevant to the foundations of evolutionary theory. If cluttering up a genome with dud DNA imposes a penalty on a organism, the junk is going to be gradually discarded via selection, or more correctly the organisms that are carrying it around will be gradually winnowed out. If it doesn't impose a penalty, the junk is going to accumulate. Evolutionary science works fine either way. Some of the critics of ENCODE said the report had done "tremendous damage". That can be argued, but there's no doubt it got a lot of people really steamed up.

* Another science kerfluffle -- the argument by Dr. Judy Mikovits that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) was caused by XMRV, a mouse-linked virus -- went through the mill over the past few years, with the last mention here indicating that Mikovits was no longer seen as having any case to make. Mikovits persisted, but now a report from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) put the final nail in the coffin of her theory.

The NIH study was derived from the work of three teams, one including Mikovits and her collaborators. All three groups concluded that there was no evidence of XMRV, or of another virus named MLV also suspected as the agent of CFS, with Mikovits saying of XMRV: "It's simply not there." She concluded: "There is no evidence that XMRV is a human pathogen." Mikovits was praised for her concession, and the NIH study was held up as a model of how such disputes should be resolved in the future.

* The Kepler Space Telescope was launched by the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) in 2009 to maintain a watch over a set of 100,000 stars, inspecting them for variations in brightness that could indicate the presence of extrasolar planets. As reported by BBC WORLD Online, of course Kepler has observed other astronomical phenomena of interest, such as the "superflare" explosions that take place on distant stars.


Our own Sun generates flares on an occasional basis, the most powerful known having taken place on 1 September 1859, being recorded by British astronomer Richard Carrington and discussed here in 2008. The outburst disrupted telegraph communications and produced auroral displays that could be seen by ships at sea on the Equator. However, superflares can be up to 10,000 times more powerful than the Carrington event.

Kepler saw a total of 365 superflares during an observation period lasting 120 days, confirming that only about 1 in 500 Sunlike stars undergo such monster explosions. Current models suggest that superflares might be caused by magnetic interactions between stars and giant planets in tight orbits around them -- not something we see in our Solar System, where the largest worlds, Jupiter and Saturn, orbit far away from the Sun. This is fortunate for us, since a solar superflare would not only fry most of our electronics, it would disrupt the ozone layer, letting in space radiation and raising hell.



* ROBOTIC RESUPPLY IN AFGHANISTAN: Much has been made of drone flying machines in combat surveillance and attack roles, but as reported by an article from FLIGHT GLOBAL Online ("K-MAX Variant Offers Glimpse Of Pilotless Future" by Andy Healy, 18 June 2012), drones are starting to demonstrate their potential in other roles, such as aerial resupply.

Kaman Aerospace, best known as a manufacturer of "eggbeater" style helicopters -- featuring side-by-side two-blade rotors, spinning 90 degrees out of phase with each other so they mesh without clashing -- developed a small "flying crane" helicopter for hauling sling cargoes named the "K-MAX". It was designed as a piloted machine, but working with Lockheed Martin, Kaman came up with technology to allow it to be "optionally piloted", capable of being flown by a pilot or as a drone. An optionally piloted K-MAX was demonstrated to the Marines in 2010 and Marine brass were impressed.

K-MAX for robot resupply

In December 2011, the USMC introduced the optionally piloted K-MAX to service in Afghanistan, with two machines obtained for a field experiment to evaluate the potential of robot resupply. K-MAX has completed its first six-month trial in Helmand and has already been extended to the end of the fiscal year, in September 2012; the contract allows for one further extension. Since its arrival, the K-MAX has flown over 400 missions and transported 590 tonnes (650 tons) of kit to and from Marine outposts. It can lift up to 2,720 kilograms (6,000 pounds) of cargo at sea level, or 1,815 kilograms (4,000 pounds) at an altitude of 4,570 meters (15,000 feet).

To conduct a mission, an NCO -- not a pilot -- climbs into a K-MAX and starts it up, to then switch control of the machine over to a second NCO at an operating station, and climb out. The NCO at the operating station commands the helicopter to lift off, with the machine then following a preprogrammed flight plan based on GPS waypoints to its destination. At the destination, a Marine takes control of the helicopter using a game controller module to input simple left-right, up-down commands to tell the helicopter where to put down the load.

A K-MAX conducts five or six missions daily, invariably at night. The helicopter features a four-hook cargo carousel that allows it to deposit loads at multiple locations during a single round-trip; the rotorcraft can be re-tasked at any stage of a flight. The outbound loads typically contain food, water and ammunition but patrols may sometimes send payloads back, for example equipment in need of repair. Potentially, the K-MAX can also drop GPS-guided parachutes to deliver supplies from stand-off distance to bases that are either inaccessible or under attack, this capability having been tested in stateside trials.

Major Kyle O'Connor, the officer overseeing the deployment, says that the Marine Corps had been looking for ways to get trucks off the road for some time: "We wanted a fast, reliable platform to resupply our combat outposts without putting Marines in more danger of IEDs." O'Connor says the serviceability of the drone helicopter has been very good, requiring less than one maintenance hour per flight hour. One controller working with the K-MAX is deeply impressed by its capability: "The precision of the system is amazing."

US involvement in Afghanistan is winding down and there is no sign that the K-MAX experiment will be continued, but the success of the demonstrations suggests that robot resupply will be normal on future battlefields. Kaman and Lockheed Martin engineers see the demonstration as paving the way for the day, a generation or so down the road, when commercial aircraft will be robots as well.



* AIDS IN AMERICA: With the development of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to deal with the HIV pathogen, we now have a means of coping with the AIDS epidemic, if not completely put it out of business. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("The Many States Of AIDS In America" by Jon Cohen, 13 July 2002), thanks to ARVs and public awareness of the dangers of AIDS, there's a common perception among Americans that AIDS may not have gone away yet, but it's under control in the USA.

That perception is misleading. According to Carlos del Rio, a medical researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia: "We only have a little more than one million [HIV] infected people in the United States, and per case, we probably have one of the highest expenditures [on prevention and treatment] in the world. We ought to be able to do something to stop the epidemic. But the problem is that it's not just a medical disease. In fact, the least of the difficulty is the medical part of the disease. It's the social, structural things that are driving the epidemic."

The reference to "only a million", actually about 1.2 million, HIV patients in the USA is also ironic. Yes, it's a low rate of infection, about 0.6% of adults, but given that America has a population of 311 million people, that means only six other countries have more HIV-infected people, with the US burden matching that of Zimbabwe and Uganda in absolute numbers. Kenneth Mayer, director of medical research at the Fenway Institute in Boston -- which focuses on HIV prevention studies -- commented: "It's not one US epidemic; it's multiple micro-epidemics."

Underlying the "micro-epidemics" is what Carlos del Rio calls the "treatment cascade", the series of failures that keep HIV patients from effective treatment:

Of all the HIV-infected Americans, it is estimated that only about 28% are on an effective treatment program. Those that aren't may be continuing to infect others.

According to statistics provided by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the largest component of new HIV patients at the present time are gay males, about 61%; heterosexuals ran to 27%, while intravenous drug users (IDUs) were 13% of the total. Despite the fact that blacks are about 14% of the US population, they account for 44% of new HIV infections. Black males are six times more likely to acquire an HIV infection than white males; black females are fifteen times as likely to acquire an HIV infection than white females. One in five newly infected HIV patients are latino, which is also disproportionately higher than the rate of white males.

The rate of infections various regionally. The US Midwest has the fewest cases; the rate is also low in most Western states, except for California, with 106,000 cases. The Northwest has a bigger problem, with 128,000 patients in New York state; but the real pain is in the Southeast, with the problem being largely focused on black folk. There's a lot of speculation on why blacks in the Southeast seem to be so vulnerable, though it's been hard to pick out any particular behavior that seems to account for it. Kevin Fenton, in charge of HIV prevention for the CDC, believes that the underlying causes are only incidentally those of race: "When I think of the US epidemic, it's easy to be seduced into the narrative of the epidemic in African Americans. But the real narrative is poverty, disenfranchisement, and a fragmented health-care system weaving together to create big social challenges."

In July 2010, the Obama Administration issued the first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy, with the goal of gradually driving down the rate of new infections and number of untreated AIDS patients. According to Grant Colfax -- director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Colfax being an openly gay clinician who previously ran the highly regarded prevention & research section of the San Francisco Department of Public Health -- the Federal government cannot do the job on its own, it needs to back up local action: "We need to focus our resources where the epidemic is. There is no magic bullet here. Every epidemic is local, and we need to look at local solutions."

The CDC has been adjusting its allocation of funding accordingly, targeting the hardest-hit locales, focusing less on exhortations and propaganda and more on evidence- and results-based programs targeting the most heavily afflicted. The frustrating thing is that HIV is ruining the lives of many American citizens who could otherwise be making their contributions to the nation, and it shouldn't be happening. Says Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases: "This is a solvable problem. I mean, c'mon, it's a finite problem with a finite solution. So we can do it."



* THE DRAGON HAS CLAWS (2): Although the US is observing China's growing military muscle from a lofty strategic perch, things don't seem so dispassionate in the South and East China Seas. In the past few years, there have been clashes between Chinese vessels and ships from Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines over territorial rights in the resource-rich waters. China's state-run GLOBAL TIMES ran an editorial to deliver a warning: "If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved."

The GLOBAL TIMES doesn't speak for the government and has a reputation for being hot-headed, though the censors let the comment pass. China's foreign ministry clearly doesn't say things like that -- but PLA brass does. A military doctrinal statement released in 2005 made the aggressive policy clear, saying that although "active defense is the essential feature of China's military strategy," if "an enemy offends our national interests it means that the enemy has already fired the first shot," in which case the PLA's mission is "to do all we can to dominate the enemy by striking first".

Military folk all over the world are habitually inclined to talk tough, but it's more unsettling with China because, astoundingly, the government does not control the PLA. It is responsible to the Communist Party, and is run by the party's Central Military Commission, not the Ministry of Defense. That makes the PLA a peer to the government, which is also subordinate to the party -- and the party's workings are almost completely opaque. The US has pushed to strengthen military-to-military ties with the PLA, partly just to get a clearer idea of what the PLA's agenda is, but the PLA is prone to suspend "mil-mil" relations when tensions arise, and also has legitimate concerns about the American agenda. As an influential American think-tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) points out, the intentions of an authoritarian regime can change very quickly. Since it's hard to determine Chinese military intent, it's hard to determine policy in response.

sizing each other up

That China is expanding its military power is without doubt. The build-up has proceeded in stages:

During this decade, the PLA is working to establish mechanization and informatization, with basic implementation to be reached by 2020. However, full informatization will certainly take longer, General Chen commenting: "A major difficulty is that we are still only partially mechanized. We do not always know how to make our investments when technology is both overlapping and leapfrogging."

While the West was able to accomplish its military transformation by taking the two processes in sequence, China is trying to do both together. Still, that has not slowed down big investments designed to defeat even technologically advanced foes by making "the best use of our strong points to attack the enemy's weak points". [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 21 SEP 12] THE TORPEDO (10)

* THE TORPEDO (10): The Whitehead firm continued to be in the lead for torpedo technology. One problem was the difficulty in ensuring that torpedoes swam out on a straight track; that wasn't a problem early on, but as range increased it became more so, with any small deviation from track then becoming enough to result in a miss. Family legend has it that Georg Hoyos' wife, Alice Whitehead Hoyos, got an idea from a book about spinning tops that gyroscopic technology might improve torpedo accuracy, and passed it on to her husband. Georg Hoyos liked the idea and talked it over with John Whitehead, Robert then being brought in for consultation.

None of the three men had any experience with the tricky complications of gyroscopic control systems, and so they had to seek help from outside the firm. Early experiments with a Russian-designed gyroscopic system suggested the idea had promise, but didn't come close to providing a practical solution. Fortunately, in 1895 an Austrian engineer named Ludwig Obry developed what has been judged the world's first honestly practical gyroscope, with the Whitehead company quickly incorporating it into their torpedoes, the shifting of the gyroscope from any change in course adjusting the rudder to keep the torpedo running straight. The spring-driven gyroscope did much to improve torpedo accuracy, allowing range to be extended dramatically. It was one of the very first practical applications of gyroscopic control.

The Whitehead firm was very enthusiastic about Obry's gyroscopic control system, buying up rights to it and engineering it into something that could be used in a field weapon. The Royal Navy was more conservative, feeling early on that the torpedoes they had were perfectly accurate. That was true for the moment, but once torpedo range was extended, it wouldn't be true any more. In 1898 the Royal Navy obtained rights to manufacture the Whitehead gyroscopic system in turn.

With the ability to make use of longer range, attention turned to propulsion improvements. A four-blade propeller was developed and adopted by the Royal Navy, though its impact was marginal. Both Whitehead and the Royal Navy also tinkered with turbine propulsion, though tests showed it no improvement over the current piston technology. However, in the USA Frank McDowell Leavitt decided turbine propulsion was the way to go, and in 1903 the US Navy ordered 300 of his torpedoes from Bliss & Williams (later Bliss & Company), Leavitt's employer. Aside from the turbine propulsion, the Bliss-Leavitt torpedo was a straightforward Whitehead torpedo, the Bliss firm having purchased rights to the Whitehead design in 1891 and built a series of Whitehead copy designs for the USN. Initially, the Bliss-Leavitt torpedo had a single turbine, but that resulted in unbalanced torque and poor controllability, so later models had dual, contra-rotating, turbines.

The Royal Navy chose to focus instead on improved piston propulsion. By the late 1890s, the three-cylinder Brotherhood engine had been improved to produce 37 kW (50 HP) using 95 atmospheres of pressure. The Peterborough company introduced a four-cylinder engine in 1899 that boosted power to 40 kW (53 SHP), driven by a nickel-steel pressure vessel at 150 atmospheres; the four-cylinder unit was fitted into the RGF 18-Inch Mark V torpedo.

These were simply incremental improvements, however. More dramatic propulsion effectiveness meant rethinking matters. As can happen under such circumstances, the rethinking began with an accident; in 1901 the Woolrich factory found out that the heating effect of sea water on the cold compressed air released from the torpedo pressure vessel could increase speed by half a knot. By 1904, this insight had led to the implementation of a "heater" system, burning kerosene or alcohol, to warm the compressed air stream. The approach was modified by using the combustion process to generate steam, this being known as the "wet heater" system -- with the weapons using it referred to as "steam torpedoes" -- as opposed to the original "dry heater" system.

A Brotherhood-developed four-cylinder engine became the preferred propulsion unit for the new torpedoes. The heater system provided torpedoes with an internal combustion engine of sorts, significantly increasing speed and range. The torpedo had finally reached maturity, now having the reach and accuracy to strike targets without requiring the launch platform to get within suicidally close range.

Work on the heater system was one of the last contributions of the Whitehead firm to torpedo technology. John Whitehead died unexpectedly in 1902, with Robert suffering a stroke that invalidated him not long after. Robert died in 1905, with Count George Hoyos preceding him to the grave a few months earlier. The Whitehead company was a family firm, and basically the exit of its founders left it without an effective head. Of course it was still a going concern, with the firm setting up new factories in France and Italy in the coming years, but Whitehead would change hands repeatedly, to diffuse over the following decades until there really wasn't much left of it but the brand name. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for August included:

-- 01 AUG 12 / PROGRESS 48P -- A Russian Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Progress 48P" AKA "M-16M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was sent up in a "rapid rendezvous" flight profile and docked with the station's Pirs module less than six hours after launch, compared to the traditional interval of about 50 hours after launch. The new flight profile required more precise launch timing and had a launch window every three days instead of every two. Soyuz capsules may use the new launch profile as well. It was the 48th Progress mission to the ISS.

-- 02 AUG 12 / INTELSAT 20, HYLAS 2 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the "Intelsat 20" and "HYLAS 2" geostationary comsats into orbit. Intelsat 20 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L 1300-series comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 3,065 kilograms (13,420 pounds), a payload of 28 C-band / 46 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 68.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, replacing the old Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 10 satellites at that location.

HYLAS 2 was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation and was based on the Orbital Star 2.4E spacecraft bus. It had a launch mass of 3,300 kilograms (7,275 kilograms), a payload of 24 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed at the geostationary slot at 31 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

-- 07 AUG 12 / TELKOM 3, EXPRESS MD2 (FAILURE) -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Indonesian "Telkom 3" and Russian government "Express MD2" geostationary comsats into orbit. Telcom 3 was built by the Russian ISS Reshetnev organization for Telkom of Indonesia. The satellite had a launch mass of 1,585 kilograms (3,500 pounds), a payload of 42 C-band / Ku-band transponders provided by Thales of France, and a design life of 15 years. Express MD2 was built by the Russian Khrunichev organization and Thales for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. The satellite had a launch mass of 1,140 kilograms (2,515 pounds), a payload of 8 C-band / 3 L-band transponders, and a design life of ten years. The satellites were left in a low and unusable orbit due to a Breeze M upper-stage failure.

-- 19 AUG 12 / INTELSAT 21 -- A Sea Launch Zenit 3SL booster was launched from the Sea Launch Odyssey platform in the equatorial Pacific to put the "Intelsat 21" geostationary comsat into orbit to provide video services for Latin America. Intelsat 21 was built by Boeing and was based on the BSS-702MP medium-power comsat platform. The satellite had launch mass of 5,982 kilograms (13,192 pounds), a payload of 36 Ku-band / 24 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 58 degrees West longitude to provide communications services to the Americas. Intelsat 21 replaced Intelsat 9, launched as PanAmSat 9 in 2000, with PanAmSat later being absorbed into Intelsat.

-- 30 AUG 12 / RBSP -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the "Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP)" into space. The twin spacecraft were placed into highly elliptical orbits to study the Earth's Van Allen radiation belts, with the two orbits subtly staggered so the spacecraft changed position relative to each other on a 75-day cycle, giving a range of perspectives on the belts.

RBSP probes

The spacecraft were built by the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab, which also operated the mission. The two probes were octagonal boxes about 1.8 meters (5 feet 11 inches) across with four solar panels, the spacecraft being unimaginatively named "Probe A" -- which had a launch mass of 648 kilograms (1,428 pounds) -- and "Probe B" -- which had a launch mass of 667 kilograms (1,470 pounds). They were actually more or less identical, Probe B having more mass because it was on the bottom of the payload stack and had fittings for mounting Probe A.

They carried particle analysis instruments, as well as payloads to measure electrical and magnetic fields, featuring a thin antenna 102 meters (334 feet) long. The instruments were fixed in position, performing scanning as the spacecraft spun at five RPM. They were radiation-hardened, including shielding over the core electronics system box.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed by AVIATION WEEK, geostationary satellites for communications or military signals intelligence can have very large antennas that are a major fraction of spacecraft mass. A satellite will eventually run out of fuel or break down, with its solar panels becoming ineffective or its electronic systems gradually going haywire. However, the big antenna is an inert item; once deployed, it can survive for far longer than the rest of the spacecraft.

The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are now conducting an investigation named "Phoenix" to recycle the antennas of dead satellites. Under Phoenix, a booster carrying a primary payload to geostationary orbit would also carry "payload orbital delivery systems (PODS)" as secondary payloads. On reaching orbit, the PODS would be picked up by a servicing spacecraft that would then travel to a dead satellite featuring a big antenna. The servicer would remove the antenna, install the PODS onto it to create an operational spacecraft, and place the "new" spacecraft in its proper geostationary slot.

recycling a satellite

The NRL-DARPA Phoenix team is working with space contractor ATK and the University of Maryland's Space Systems Lab to perform a space demonstration no earlier than 2015. The exercise will leverage off work performed by ATK on space servicing, discussed here in 2011.



* THIRSTY WORLD REVISITED: The world's water consumption was discussed here in 2009. As a follow-up, as reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCENOW Online ("Is Agriculture Sucking Fresh Water Dry?" by Sid Perkins, 13 February 2012), a new study by water policy analysts Arjen Hoekstra and Mesfin Mekonnen of the University of Twente in the Netherlands has provided a picture of global water consumption patterns in unprecedented quality and detail.

According to Hoekstra, humans consume water in a number of ways: they pump it from rivers and reservoirs, draw it from underground aquifers, and render it unusable by polluting it. The two researchers analyzed humanity's water footprint at high geographical resolution for the decade from 1996 to 2005, the most recent such interval for which comprehensive data are available. They divided the Earth's surface into blocks about 85 square kilometers or smaller and then used data compiled by individual nations to estimate water-consumption patterns by agriculture, industry, and households.

water flows

Overall, humans use over 9 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year, enough to cover an area the size of the state of California to a depth of over 20 meters. Just three nations -- China, India, and the USA -- are responsible for over a third of that usage, each nation using over a square kilometer of fresh water a year. Although China and India use incrementally more water than the USA, they have much bigger populations, and so Americans are clearly the biggest water consumers on a per-capita basis, each using almost 2,850 cubic meters a year -- enough to fill an Olympic-class swimming pool, and twice the global average of 1,385 cubic meters.

The study has been praised for its sophistication. For example, it doesn't just measure the amount of water pumped from surface and underground sources, it considers the possibility that that water, once withdrawn, will be recycled and reused several times before it flows to the sea. The study also tracked the flow of "virtual water", or the water needed to produce a commodity, such as meat or electronics. A previous analysis found that it takes about 5,300 liters of water to grow and process a dollar's worth of grain -- a hefty amount of water, enough to fill almost 28 50-gallon drums, not apparent when picking up a sack of flour from a supermarket shelf. The new analysis shows how significant it is, with about 22% of 22% of the water consumed worldwide exported as "virtual water".

Not too surprisingly, the survey showed that agriculture accounted for about 92% of the world's water footprint. The water needed to grow "cereal grains" such as wheat, rice, and corn accounted for about 27% of global water consumption. Meat and dairy products accounted for another 22% and 7%, respectively. Hoekstra is actually encouraged, to an extent, by the high rate of water consumption by agriculture -- since it suggests that great gains in water conservation may be obtained by relatively cheap and easy measures, such as improved irrigation. We haven't paid too much attention to water conservation in the past because we generally didn't need to; now that we increasingly need to, we should be able to do a much better job of handling our water resources.



* TECH HUBS FOR AFRICA: Much has been made of the benefits Africans have obtained from low-cost high tech, particularly cellphones, but indigenous African work on high tech has been largely ignored. Of course, Africans weren't doing very much high tech development in the past, but as reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("From Kenya to Madagascar: The African Tech-Hub Boom" by Erik Hersman) that's been changing dramatically over the past few years. African entrepreneurs are developing their own solutions to support African cellphone users, businesses, and governments.

Unfortunately, high-tech entrepreneurs in Africa are hobbled by governments short on resources and tech savvy, and universities not all that much better off. Now a support infrastructure is springing up in the form of a network of tech hubs and incubators, such "MEST Ghana", described as an "incubation and training space"; "ActivSpaces" in Cameroon, a "co-working environment"; and the "Co-Creation Hub" in Nigeria, a "community space". Whatever the names and descriptions, they're facilities where African technogeeks can obtain resources, pool their own resources, and make contacts. Governments and academic institutions are increasingly supportive. There are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, spanning more than 20 nations. Not all are new, some going back a decade, but most have appeared since 2010.

There are six hubs in Nairobi alone, most notably the "iHub". Four years ago iHub was just an idea; now it has more than 8,000 members and holds about 120 events a year. The iHub provides a locus for Kenya's tech community, having established strong relationships with some of Kenya's top companies such as Zuku, Nokia, Google, Nation Media Group, Safaricom, InMobi, MIH and Samsung. A clutch of African technology startups have sprouted from the iHub, Nairobi having acquired the reputation as the technology boomtown of Africa, the "Silicon Savannah". The iHub has good relations with the Kenyan government, plus strong ties with Strathmore and Stanford Universities. Hersman, the author of the Beeb article and one of the founders of iHub, commented:


... if we had waited for the government to create the iHub in Kenya, we would still be waiting today. We often joke that in Nairobi people don't think you have a job unless you wear a suit and tie ... who provides the space for the ... start-up coder wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt?

... innovators are found in the margins. They are the misfits among us, the ones who see and do things differently. The tech hubs in Africa provide a home for those with new and innovative ideas, create an atmosphere where they are encouraged to try new things, and most importantly are able to meet like-minded individuals they can grow with.


The hubs are establishing networks among each other. In 2011, five African tech hubs founded "Afrilabs", an umbrella organization that allows investors and media to hook up more quickly to the tech activity in each of the countries that houses a member lab. Afrilabs now has 14 member labs across ten countries.

It won't be long before small tablet computers will be cheap enough to become widespread in Africa, giving Africa's technogeeks new opportunities with a more capable computing platform. Still, some of those involved in the African tech-hub boom are cautious, worrying that all they may end up doing is providing job-shops to do grunt work for outsiders who don't care about Africa. African entrepreneurs want to encourage foreign investment in tech hubs while retaining sight of the goal of Africans creating technology for Africans -- and, if they're smart enough, for the global market as well.

* AFROBANKS: In related news, an article from TIME Online ( "The Secret of Africa's Banking Boom: Mobility" by Erik Heinrich, 16 August 2012) discussed the banking boom in Africa. That Africa's embrace of the cellphone has led to the emergence of "microbanking" services for poor Africans is not news, having been last discussed here in 2010. What is news is that it's become big business for Africa's banks. Even though Africans typically don't have much money, there's a lot of Africans, and most want to save money if they can. Small sums add up, with the estimated total of money Africans would like to salt away coming to almost $60 billion USD.

Attijariwafa Bank logo

Morocco's Attijariwafa Bank has become Africa's biggest lender outside of South Africa, ranked by assets, thanks to rapid growth throughout francophone West and Central Africa -- Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Cameroon and Gabon. The Attijariwafa Bank didn't think much of expanding out of Morocco until recently, but the financial crisis in the Eurozone -- traditionally Morocco's biggest export market and source of tourism revenue -- meant hunting elsewhere. Efforts having paid off, the bank plans to continue investing in Africa, working to increase its presence from 12 to 20 countries by 2015.

Similarly, Nigeria's United Bank for Africa has spread across the continent, operating in almost 20 countries, including Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia -- while Togo-based Ecobank has moved into 32 countries, making it Africa's biggest lender by geographic reach. Ecobank officials say they expect to increase the firm's asset base tenfold in the next decade, thanks to African economic growth. Yes, the economic crunch has affected Africa, but the underlying boom in global demand for African commodities is not showing signs of fizzling out. African banks can place a good bet on riding the boom, all the more so because retail banking for the continent is a long overdue development and there's enormous pent-up demand.

So why haven't big Western financial institutions like BNP Paribas, Credit Lyonnais and Barclays moved in to exploit the market? Because they've been hit hard by the global economic crisis and are understandably shy about jumping into a market that demands good understanding of local cultures. Says one African banking official: "It's an advantage being an African in Africa because it gives you a better ability to read the nuances of countries. This results in better interpretations of what you find and how you respond."



* THE DRAGON HAS CLAWS (1): As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Dragon's New Teeth", 7 April 2012), when China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi found himself the target of complaints from emissaries of states bordering his nation about overbearing Chinese behavior, the annoyed Yang told them, in effect, to deal with it: "China is a big country, and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact."

China's neighbors understand this perfectly well, and in particular are aware that China is engaged in an aggressive military buildup. Nobody but the Chinese is very certain just how much money the country is spending on military might, but there is no doubt spending has been ramping up rapidly. According to SIPRI, a Stockholm-based research institute, annual Chinese defense spending rose from over $30 billion USD in 2000 to almost $120 billion USD in 2010. That leads to an estimate of $160 billion USD in 2012. As mentioned here in March, that's still modest compared to US defense spending, currently about four and a half times that of China's, but if the rate of increase persists, China could overtake the USA in defense spending by 2035.

Chinese PLA soldiers

Two decades ago, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) was only powerful in numbers of soldiers, and the PLA is still the world's biggest army, with an active force of 2.3 million troops. However, Chinese strategists have clearly abandoned the idea that manpower in itself equates to military power; Pentagon planners believe China is working to acquire "anti-access/area denial (A2/AD)" capabilities. The idea is to use antiship and precision ground attack missiles, a fleet of submarines, plus cyber and anti-satellite weapons to disrupt the abilities of America or another power to intervene against China. In specific, the Chinese are targeted US Navy aircraft carrier groups, as well as American air bases in Okinawa, South Korea, and Guam. China has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan if the island were ever to declare formal independence, and an invasion would require neutralization of US forces in the region.

The US sees no imminent threat of China taking action; if China could hurt the Americans, the Americans could hurt China worse. However, as demonstrated by a new "strategic guidance" document issued in January by US President Barack Obama and his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, a shift in American defense priorities towards Asia was overdue and under way. The document pointed out that while "While the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity re-balance towards the Asia-Pacific region."

America is planning to cut about half a trillion dollars in defense spending over the next ten years -- but the strategic guidance document still makes it clear that "to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged."

The USA, distracted by wars in the Mideast and South Asia, neglected Chinese assertiveness in the Far East, allowing China to gradually subvert American influence in the region. Now the US is trying to rebalanced the scales. In November 2011, Obama announced that 2,500 US Marines would be stationed in Australia, while talks about an increased American military presence in the Philippines began in February this year.

Officially, China is committed to what it called "peaceful rise". Its foreign-policy experts stress their commitment to a rules-based multipolar world, and deny that China is attempting to become a "near peer" military competitor with America. No doubt PLA generals like the idea of being that powerful, but China's neighbors would see the attempt to develop a force-projection capability comparable to the USA's as far beyond any rational necessity for the defense of China, instead signaling an offensive intent.

Chinese leadership may well sincerely believe in the "peaceful rise", but may not see it as incompatible with a stronger military and an assertive foreign policy. The problem is that the Americans and China's neighbors don't honestly know what China is doing and intends to do. While it's obvious China is engaged in a military buildup, no outsiders are certain of the specifics, of China's strategic goals, or even who is precisely in the driver's seat. It's less that China seems to be up to no good, and more the case that nobody's quite sure what China really is up to. As the new US strategic-guidance document comments: "The growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE TORPEDO (9): With so many of the world's navies equipped with the Whitehead torpedo and its derived designs, it was inevitable that it would finally be seriously used in combat. The first confirmed kill by torpedo took place in the course of a civil war in Chile in 1891, in which different factions took control of different parts of the Chilean Navy. While one faction, the Congressionalists, possessed most of the heavy warships the other, the Balmacedists, managed to get hold of two new torpedo boats, the ALMIRANTE LYNCH and ALMIRANTE CONDELL, that had just arrived in the country.

The Balmacedists decided to use the two torpedo boats to neutralize Congressionalist naval power, sneaking into Caldera Bay in the dark hours of the morning of 23 April 1891. The crews were somewhat disappointed that they only found one target berthed there, the ironclad BLANCO ENCALADA, but they engaged it anyway. The CONDELL launched its three Whitehead torpedoes; they all went wide, the only result being to alert the crew of the BLANCO ENCALADA, which started firing on the CONDELL. However, the defenders failed to notice the LYNCH closing in; the torpedo boat launched one torpedo, which missed, with the captain then coming in closer to launch the other two. One struck home and the BLANCO ENCALADA went down in a tremendous explosion, taking most of her men along with her.

A roughly similar incident took place in 1894, during a rebellion in Brazil. The Brazilian Navy rose up against the government, but presidential forces managed to get their hands on torpedo boats. On the early morning of 16 April 1894, four presidential torpedo boats attacked the ironclad AQUIDABAN at anchor off the coast of Santa Catarina state, leading to a very confused action involving a lot of wild shooting on both sides. The torpedo boat GUSTAVO SAMPAIO finally managed to score a hit, with the AQUIDABAN beaching herself in shallow water. However clumsily it was done, it was enough to send the leaders of the rebellion fleeing the country. Having regained control, the government raised and refitted the AQUIDABAN -- which would be ultimately lost when its powder magazines exploded in 1906.

The last torpedo actions of the 19th century were in 1894:1895, during the First Sino-Japanese War. In the Battle of the Yalu River on 17 September 1894, a Chinese fleet engaged a Japanese fleet -- the Chinese getting very much the worst of it, even though they were well-equipped with torpedo boats, armed with Schwartzkopff torpedoes. The Chinese launched plenty of torpedoes, but they were unskilled in the use of the weapon, all shots going wide.

Badly damaged, the Chinese fleet retired to the port of Weihaiwei. By early 1895, the Japanese were closing in on the town, to then demand that the defenders surrender. The Chinese refused; the Japanese sent in flotillas of torpedo boats during a series of actions in early February, disabling the the Chinese ironclad TING YUEN and later sinking the warships WEI YUEN, SAI YUEN, and CHEN YUEN with Schwartzkopff torpedoes -- the Japanese demonstrating a real determination to press their attacks despite bitter winter weather. Ironically, despite the good showing of the Schwartzkopff torpedo, later that year the Imperial Japanese Navy decided to obtain Whitehead torpedoes instead. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BUSINESS WEEK reported on the work of a bioengineer named Ben Epstein at OpCoast, a software-oriented defense contractor out of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. He's developed sensor modules that can be attached to a "death's head" cockroach, which is about 5 centimeters (2 inches) long and can carry a relatively heavy load.

The modules feature a microphone, a wireless Zigbee link -- discussed here in 2006 -- and a battery. Of course the cockroaches aren't trained, they just do what comes naturally, which is sneak through cracks and crevices of structures and stay out of the light. The cockroaches could be used for surveillance, or for finding survivors in collapsed structures. Epstein is working on a tinier module for smaller insects such as crickets.

* As reported by WIRED Online blogs, although the US military is at its core equipped and trained to "break things and hurt people", the services do like to play up their undeniably significant role in humanitarian relief efforts. However, in terms of resources humanitarian relief tends to take a back seat to the combat role -- for the unarguable reason that the armed services don't want to be caught dangerously flat-footed by an adversary if a war breaks out.

As a result, maintaining the humanitarian element requires optimum use of limited resources. To this end the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" development office, is working with defense firm Raytheon to design the "Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform (TEMP)", a scheme to quickly transform ordinary container ships to assist in humanitarian missions.

After a disaster, gear and goods warehoused in advance at various ports around the world would be loaded on container ships, the target for getting things working being less than a day. The kit would include robot modular cranes, drones with parafoil wings, an amphibious robot "Cargo Amphibious Transport (CAT)" that could deliver entire containers, and onboard modules to house 80 to 100 personnel. In response to a disaster, a container ship would stand offshore and deliver goods with the drones and CATs, offloading hundreds of tonnes of materiel a day. As is typical with DARPA programs, there's no commitment to fielding the system even if works well; a military service will have to pick up the tab for development and production.

This is not actually the first time schemes have been cooked up to quickly adapt container ships to military roles. One notion was to turn container ships into "mini aircraft carriers" for Harrier jump-jets, installing a set of support modules and a "ski jump" deck for the aircraft. The Russians are actually selling a launch system for antiship missiles in a standard cargo container format.

* The Toys'R Us chain has now introduced a $150 USD tablet for kids under the store's own brand name. Kiddie tablets are nothing at all new, the LeapPad having been discussed here in 2011 -- but the Tabeo is much more comparable to a "grown-up" tablet. It has a 1 GHz CPU, presumably an ARM; 1 gigabyte of RAM and 4 gigabytes of flash, with a microSD expansion slot; wi-fi, HDMI, and USB ports, the USB also being used for charging; a 7-inch color display with a resolution of 800x480 pixels; an estimated battery life of ten hours; and an Android 4.X OS. The Tabeo has a wraparound bumper to protect it from drops, along with parental controls plus a set of educational and game apps.

Tabeo tablet

The Tabeo caught my eye because its specs almost exactly fit the tablet I would like to buy and at the right price point. Its software feature set isn't exactly what I want, but if this item can be sold at $150, it's likely "grown-up" tablets will catch up soon enough. It remains to be seen if 7-inch tablets can reach the magic $100 USD mark in a few years.



* JOHN DEERE FARMS THE WORLD: It's always nice to hear of US companies doing well for themselves, particularly in economically trying times. As a case in point, an article from the 9 July 2012 issue of BUSINESS WEEK ("Big Green Profit Machine" by Bryan Gruley & ShrutiDate Singh) focused on the global success of John Deere, the venerable American manufacturer of farm gear.

Deere manufactures a fair range of products, but it is best known for its tractors -- ranging from the little 3000 series, useful for grounds keepers, through the midrange 6R series, up to the monster 9R series, with two axles and eight oversized wheels. High-end machines can have comforts rivaling those of a luxury auto, but the paint job of the company's farm machinery remains standardized: green chassis, yellow wheels -- though the firm's construction gear is of course is the similarly stereotypical yellow and black.

Users all over the world are happy with the capability and durability of Deere products. The company was founded in Moline, Illinois, in 1837 by -- of course -- John Deere, a blacksmith who developed a plow and the means to mass-produce it. Going on two centuries later, Deere is the world's biggest maker of farm equipment. Deere owns 60% of the $23 billion USD US-Canada farm equipment market and good chunk of the market overseas. Deere has achieved market power not only by making good product, but by creating a dealer network almost more loyal to customers than the company that can keep farmers coming back for generations.

Deere's penetration of the global market was not easy, however, the company having been long focused on the US and Canada. It turned out, to no real surprise, that the needs of farmers vary from region to region. American farmers need big machines to cover oversized spreads; elsewhere, farms may be typically much smaller, and feature elements such as rice paddies. Deere is faced with plenty of tough competition from firms that make products tailored to their specific regions. The firm, however, is good at plod. CEO Samuel Allen commented that a company as old as Deere is "almost by definition is methodical. We're normally not the first to market. We're normally followers, but we do it better."

Right now Deere makes 39% of its sales outside the USA, the company having gained against its biggest global competitors -- Agco (Case brand) and CNH Global (New Holland brand). Twenty years ago, Deere only had two plants outside the USA; today it has a total of nine, in Germany, India, China, Mexico, and Brazil. Deere introduced over 100 products in Europe in 2011; about half of the company's 61,300 full-time personnel work outside the USA, with the firm hiring locals to staff the dealer networks, infusing them with the same zealous dedication to the customer. Deere plans to make 50% of its sales elsewhere by 2018.

Deere 8R tractor

One of the keys to Deere's success elsewhere is the 8R series -- a big tractor, if not as big as the 9R -- which was the first Deere tractor specifically designed for the global farming market. It's too big for India's farms, but a good fit for places like Brazil. It's built at a Deere plant in Waterloo, Iowa. That particular plant was actually set up about a century ago by Waterloo Gasoline Engine, maker of the Waterloo Boy tractor, to be bought out by Deere in 1918 when Deere management realized the era of the horse-drawn plow was coming to an end and farm machinery had to keep up with technological trends. The 21st-century 8R not only runs on diesel fuel, but on millions of lines of software.

Currently about 5,600 people work in the Waterloo complex which is, as one might expect from Deere, vertically integrated, with a foundry, engine factory, assembly plant, and engineering facility. Most of Deere's big tractors, from the 6R to the 9R, are built there. Deere began work on the 8R in 2006, canvassing customers to see what they really wanted, and has continued to refine it since its introduction. What they got from the customers was that the 8R needed to be reliable -- if a tractor breaks down, a farm isn't in business -- as well as fuel efficient, while providing the muscle to automate farm production in support of the global agricultural revolution. The company has also tweaked the design to meet local emissions and other regulatory specifications.

The 8R is offered with a wide range of options to fit customer needs: six different front axles, five transmissions, 13 rear hitches, 54 configurations of front wheels and tires, plus sensors, lighting, radios and other entertainment gear, mirrors, weatherization, and even fenders. Deere offers a number of versions of AutoTrac, a GPS-based system in which the tractor drives itself; and JDLink ("John Deere Link"), which allows farmers and dealers to remotely monitor a tractor over a cellphone link.

Deere 8R tractor interior

None of that comes cheap, and Deere equipment tends to be more expensive than the competition -- but customers who go with Deere machinery tend to stay with it, finding that the value is worth the extra price. That means that the production lines at Waterloo stay busy, tractors being pieced together and delivered to the huge paint shop, where painting robots dress them up in regulation Deere colors. Says a manager: "We can paint in any color. But we don't."

ED: In my career as a factory contact, I found that the notion of sales reps who were more on the customer's side than the company's is not a fiction. That's what the best sales reps are like. They could be a real pain to deal with, thanks to their insistent demands, but we generally respected them. One exception was a sales rep who dealt with NASA JPL -- a gang of rocket scientists who had an inclination to ask for the absurd. We would all but scream at the sales rep that he would be doing the customer more of a favor trying to get their expectations more in line with reality, instead of trying to back them up.



* FAMILY PLANNING COMEBACK: There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when family planning -- birth control -- was pressed on the developing world as a means of heading off the "Population Bomb". The Population Bomb, if not exactly a dud, didn't turn out to be doomsday either, and as the USA became more conservative under Ronald Reagan, family planning became something of a dirty word. It became a dirtier word when some of the excesses came to light, most notably those associated with China's authoritarian "one child" policy.

As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Choice Not Chance", 14 July 2012), family planning is undergoing something of a revival. Welcome to the Marie Stopes clinic on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, where a young woman named Juliet is having a contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) fitted -- an effective, reversible, and safe means of birth control, the IUD having gone beyond the bad reputation it acquired with poorly-engineered devices like the Dalkon shield. Juliet admits her husband does not know she is having the procedure, but she thinks he will not mind. It hardly seems there's any stigma in going to the clinic, since it gets about 14,000 visits a month, with staff visiting villages to provide birth control to many more women.

Burkina Faso has one of the highest birth rates in the world, with each woman likely to have six babies in her life. It's been falling, however; in 1990 it was seven per woman, and in Ouagadougou itself it is below five. A staffer at the clinic says: "Women use contraception because they want to work and they worry about feeding and educating the children. Men don't worry about that, but they respond to arguments about their wives' health and income."

There lies part of the key to the revitalization of family planning in developing countries. The old notion of defusing the Population Bomb was clumsy and authoritarian, inclined to come across as a eugenicist's vision of preventing the world from being overrun by the dirty poor. The real bottom line is that people are well more inclined to want reproductive choice than not, and they want it for their own benefit. The Population Bomb can, has to, take care of itself.

Family planning in developing countries never actually went away, it's just had to suffer from funding shortfalls, or what one observer described in general as "horrendous neglect". Now that's changing, a summit on family planning having been held in London this July, just before the Olympic Games. The meeting was arranged by the British government and the charitable Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; it received pledges of $4.6 billion USD from donors to provide proper contraception -- IUDs, pills, injectables, implants and condoms -- to an extra 120 million women in developing countries by 2020. On top of current efforts, the extra money is expected to more than halve the number of women in poor countries who want contraceptive technologies, but don't have access to them. Studies show that over 220 million women of child-bearing age in developing countries were in this position in 2012, with the number falling very slowly at present.

Melida Gates at London conference

Access to family planning tends to vary greatly by region. More than 80% of women can get family planning in East Asia, but in the Middle East and most of sub-Saharan Africa the proportion is less than half. In west and central Africa, it's only a tenth, with the countries most lacking in family planning tending towards the dirt-poor, with booming populations only making matters worse. The citizens generally want family planning; in countries where big families are the norm, most parents say they want fewer children.

A recent study suggests that in 2012, there will be about 80 million unwanted pregnancies in developing countries, leading to 40 million abortions, 10 million miscarriages, 100,000 maternal deaths, 800,000 still births, and 600,000 infant deaths. Universal contraception would cut the number of unwanted pregnancies by two-thirds, reducing the problems as well. There's also the issue of spacing of pregnancies: if a woman conceives within 18 months of bearing a child, the chances of miscarriage or still birth, low birth weight, infant death and stunted physical development are much increased.

Not only do parents want family planning, it makes economic sense as well, with the study mentioned above concluding that every dollar spent on contraception saves $1.40 USD on maternal and newborn health care. In a published commentary, the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Rwanda stated that family planning is about "listening to what parents want". Coercive population control has now become an absurdity, an exercise in forcing people to do what they would do in their own fashion by themselves. The choice to reproduce -- or not -- has now become recognizable as a basic human right for all the world's citizens.



* VIDEO GAMES CONQUER THE WORLD (4): Given all the energy and expense pumped into computer gaming, it's not surprising that the technology has practical uses as well. Codemasters, for example, is a British developer that specializes in driving games, including a Formula One racing simulator, featuring detailed models of racecars and of particular courses. Formula One racers have used the game to get a leg up on particular courses before they actually run them.

Of course, games have an obvious link to military simulation. STEEL BEASTS, a tank-warfare simulation game developed by California-based eSim Games, is reportedly being used by several Western armies. The Canadian, British and Australian armed forces have experimented with training their soldiers on VIRTUAL BATTLE SPACE 2 (VBS2), a modified version of ARMA 2, a military wargame developed by Bohemia Interactive, a Czech games firm.


There's nothing new about military simulation; what is new is simulations at the level of individual soldiers. In VBS2, a player works alongside fellow players against a group of adversary players, using a variety of real-world weapons in virtual combat, operating over a country-sized battlespace with varied terrain in day or night, in foul weather. Satellite images and geographical data can be fed into the software to generate virtual representations of real places, allowing soldiers to rehearse specific missions. It is suspected that the US commando team that killed Osama bin Laden went through the drill virtually before they went into action.

Along with military applications, there are also scientific applications, as discussed here last in 2008 -- with thousands of volunteers playing computer games to perform computing tasks, such as of the folding of proteins, that would otherwise soak up massive amounts of supercomputer time. Businesses are interested in gaming as well as a means of training staff, finding it more effective to discuss logistics and planning by games than through chalkboard exercises. Indeed, as a foil to the protests about violent games, games like CITYVILLE give youngsters a taste of managerial roles they may want to play as adults.

In addition, businesses are interested in "gamification" of their online systems, adding gamelike features to what traditionally weren't games to make them more inviting to users. Britain's Department for Work and Pensions, for example, has gamified the traditional suggestion box. Staff who come up with ideas to improve the business are awarded points called "DWPeas" that can be invested in promising suggestions made by other people. If the boss gives the go-ahead, the investors get their points back with interest, thus increasing their total. A leaderboard and a "buzz index" provide an element of competition. Some skeptics are unconvinced that gamification is anything more than a gimmick, and with some justification; people are sorting through the concept right now to see what is useful in it and what is just fluff.

The underlying technology in games certainly has broader applicability. The development of artificial intelligence technology for games was discussed here in 2009. The Kinect gesture-recognition system certainly seems like a springboard for wider use. To be sure, Microsoft never investigated gesture recognition simply for games, seeing it as much more generally useful, but Kinect did a lot to put gesture recognition on the map. It might not be too long before vending machines, assistance systems, or even entire stores are "wired" with gesture recognition. This leads to the scenario, of course, of watching people waving their hands in the air in strange gestures in public, which promises to be even more disconcerting than the disembodied conversations of people wearing Bluetooth earphones. There may come a day when the world is "gamified" and we find it perfectly normal.


* After decades of growth, there is no doubt that video games are here to stay. The interesting question is whether video games, as the fastest-growing component of the media industry, pose a threat to other forms of media. History suggests not: TV did not kill off radio, and books are still widespread in the age of electronic media. To be sure, games have their effect on traditional media, one example being the way that the popular HALO series of sci-fi combat games has spawned off a series of paperbacks, with fans a bit frustrated that HALO hasn't led to a movie series yet. There's plenty of synergism between games and old media.

Still, games are different from old media. It's not just that they're more gimmicky; it's that, unlike books or movies, they are interactive. Humans love to play, and being able to play in a fantasy world is much more interesting than simply being taken on a passive tour through one. Video games can offer all the glitz and action of a movie, but it's a movie that users are part of, indeed at the center of. Video games allow us to play any game we can imagine in the comfort of our homes, and given the ingenuity of game-makers, are giving us games we haven't imagined.

* ED: Incidentally, well before the game MODERN WARFARE 3 was introduced, the satirical website THE ONION cooked up a promotional video for their take on what MW3 should look like, which featured an unusual degree of realism -- proclaiming that "the majority of gameplay [involves] hauling equipment and making out paperwork ... gamers will stand guard outside a photorealistic warehouse for hours ...", and with "blazing combat action" consisting of getting picked off without warning by a sniper while stepping out for a smoke. Anyone who was ever a soldier knows that boredom and blunders are what the military's all about, much more than shooting at everything that moves. Possibly there's such a thing as too much realism. [END OF SERIES]



* THE TORPEDO (8): With no competition to speak of, Robert Whitehead was doing a boom business with torpedoes, having sold a total of over 1,450 torpedoes to over a dozen nations. After the death of his wife in 1883 he went into semi-retirement, leaving the day-to-day management of the firm to his son John and Georg Hoyos, to then buy a grand manor in the English countryside and play the gentleman farmer. He wouldn't prove very skilled at the game, finding himself out of his depth; after coming close to financial ruin, he adopted a more modest lifestyle.

In the meantime, his torpedo continued to evolve. From the outset, Whitehead's torpedoes had been spindle-shaped, on the assumption that was the most streamlined shape for traveling under the water. Intuitive that might be, but in the early 1880s a researcher for the Admiralty determined that the more optimum shape was a cylinder with an egg-shaped head and a tapered rear. From the 14-Inch RL Mark IV torpedo onwards, torpedoes would adopt the blunt head -- which gradually evolved to the end of the century to a neatly hemispherical head. The rounded head also permitted a heftier warhead.

Early Whitehead torpedoes had a safety mechanism based on a nose spinner that didn't arm the weapon until it had traveled about 55 meters (60 yards), with the safety limit cut to half that later. There was a locking pin on the spinner that had to be pulled before the torpedo was launched. Even at that, the safety mechanisms were inadequate, and so in 1883 Whitehead came up with an improved design, with a shield that blocked the firing pin from striking the detonator before the torpedo had gone beyond its safety limit. There was still one difficulty in that, in its normal position, the detonator could set off the torpedo's warhead, which would later result in several warships being lost when a shell hit their torpedo tubes. Ultimately, the detonator itself would be moved out of contact with the warhead and not brought up to it until the safety limit was exceeded.

The Whitehead firm, as well the Royal Navy's Woolrich establishment and the Schwartzkopff company of Berlin, couldn't make torpedoes fast enough. The Royal Navy's embrace of the torpedo was strengthened in 1886, when Jacky Fisher became the service's director of ordnance, and took torpedo development under his complete control. There was no more equivocation about torpedoes, with the Royal Navy hot to obtain the latest refinement of the weapon provided by Whitehead.

The Whitehead firm complied, demonstrating a 46 centimeter (18 inch) torpedo in 1889. At 560 kilograms (1,236 pounds) it was almost twice as heavy as the 14-Inch RL torpedo, as well as faster, with longer range and -- very significantly -- a warhead about four times as heavy. The Royal Navy, after a bit of bureaucratic infighting, snapped it up, with the Royal Gun Factory producing the first "18-Inch Mark I" torpedo in 1890. The 18-Inch pattern would become the Royal Navy standard.

The Royal Gun Factory, incidentally, took over production of all torpedoes from the Royal Laboratory establishment in 1893. The Whitehead firm had established a factory at Weymouth in Britain in 1890 to service Royal Navy demand, but in 1894 the service decided that the Royal Gun Factory could produce all the torpedoes required and the service had no further need of Whitehead production. That caused some consternation at Whitehead, but the demand for torpedoes was still strong and alternate customers were found for Weymouth's production. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: On the whole, vaccines have been a great benefit to humankind -- but they are not and cannot be perfect, being a technology involving biological tinkering that inevitably doesn't have the same sort of predictability we would expect from our machines, which can be unpredictable enough. As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, researchers have discovered, to their surprise, that two virus strains used to vaccinate Australian chickens may have recombined to form a hybrid virus that is sickening and killing the birds.

Chickens are susceptible to a disease named "infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT)", caused by a virus, ILTV, of the herpesvirus family. ILTV infection cuts egg production and can kill up to a fifth of its victims, with birds effectively choking to death on their own blood and mucus. ILTV is not a threat to humans, and in fact, it's not known to infect any animals other than chickens along with related fowls.

To combat ILTV, farmers vaccinate their chickens with attenuated herpesviruses that can still infect and replicate, but won't cause disease. Australia has used two vaccines, produced by Pfizer and named SA2 and A20. In 2006, however, Australia purchased a new vaccine from European company Intervet named Serva. Two years later, new strains of ILTV, called class 8 and 9, appeared, proving deadly and dominating over older dangerous strains of ILTV.

There was a suspicion that the Serva vaccine strain had reverted to virulence, but when the researchers sequenced the genomes of the two new strains and the three vaccine strains, they found that the new viruses were actually stitched together from the Pfizer and Serva vaccines. Whatever features of the vaccine strains that restrained them were lost in the recombination. This is surprising in itself, and also surprising in that farmers typically only used one type of vaccine. What may have happened is that chickens given one vaccine were infected by contagion from chickens that had been given another.

Although antivaccine activists are certain to make a fuss about the issue, researchers involved don't see it as anything more than freakish, simply requiring that live attenuated pathogen vaccines be carefully qualified to see that it doesn't happen again. Says one: "This is not a panic button on vaccines."

* As discussed here in 2005, the most familiar domesticated banana is the Cavendish, making up about half world production and effectively the only banana most Americans and Europeans ever see. It is a peculiarly vulnerable plant, since it's effectively seedless and is reproduced by cuttings. In other words, all Cavendish banana plants are clones of each other, and so very vulnerable to pathogens -- most notably fungal infections.

Researchers have now tackled the banana genome, though they didn't make a direct assault on the Cavendish. That's because it is a "polyploid hybrid", with six sets of chromosomes, compared to our two sets of chromosomes -- plants are far more inclined to form such genomic "train wrecks" than animals. They chose instead the DH Pahang, a much smaller seedy banana. It has two sets of chromosomes like we do, making it much easier to sequence, and it's also one of the three bananas that contributed to the Cavendish genome. The DH Pahang has resistance genes against fungal infections; the genomic information it provided may help breed a tougher banana.

* Genomics researchers have also finally obtained the genome of the domestic tomato. The researchers sequenced the genomes of both Heinz 1706, a variety used to make ketchup, and the tomato's closest wild relative, Solanum pimpinellifolium, which lives in the highlands of Peru, where the tomato's ancestors originated.

garden tomato

It turns out to have 31,760 genes, well more than that of a human. As mentioned above, plants have a tendency to "go polyploid", and as with the banana, the tomato has six sets of chromosomes. Comparison of the tomato genome with the distantly related grapevine, the two species having diverged about 100 million years ago, shows that the tomato underwent the triplication after the split. The triplication occurred about 70 million years ago, resulting in a more diverse genome -- in which parallel genes on the plant's six sets of chromosomes could mutate in parallel in different ways. That genetic adaptability may have helped the tomato survive the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.

The tomato genome is interesting both in itself, and because it is representative of the family of plants to which it belongs -- the Solanaceae family, as it is known, which includes the potato, the tobacco plant, the pepper, the eggplant and deadly nightshade. Interestingly, the tomato and potato are about 92% genetically identical; although both have been sequenced, genomicists have not yet been able to unravel why they are so different in form.

As a more practical consideration, the store-bought tomato has been bred for shelf life and cosmetics at the expense of taste, making it an only too convenient target of agritech bashers. An understanding of the plant's genome may make it possible to get taste along with shelf life and cosmetics, or for that matter produce new tomatoes for a range of tastes.



* TRANSFORMER CHOKEPOINT: Our Sun is now entering a period of increased activity, generating outbursts that can disrupt communications and, potentially, the electrical grid. As discussed here in 2008, an active Sun raises the prospect of the occurrence of one its infrequent "solar storms" that could fry most of the satellites in orbit and bring down electrical grids worldwide. One moderate solar storm in 1989 brought down the entire province of Quebec. Although few take the tales of an apocalypse in 2012 very seriously, a major solar storm this year could provide a fair simulation of one, bringing down power grids for months.

As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("A Drill To Replace Crucial Transformers -- Not the Hollywood Kind" by Matthew L. Wald, 14 March 2012), electrical utilities and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are very aware of this unpleasant prospect, as well as the threats to the US electrical power grid from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and terrorist attacks. One of the primary chokepoints in the electrical distribution system is the set of about 2,100 high-voltage (HV) transformers that take power from trunk lines for local distribution.

It's not so troublesome to replace a transformer; the problem is having a replacement transformer in the first place, since the lead time to get one can be up to two years. In early March, industry and government carried out an unprecedented emergency drill to determine just how quickly the USA could recovery from a disaster that crippled the power grid. Twelve trucks drove 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Saint Louis, Missouri, to Houston, Texas, to deliver three "recovery transformers", with work crews then laboring around the clock to install them within a few days. The exercise cost $17 million USD, with the DHS picking up half the tab and industry picking up the other half.

For the test, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) ordered the recovery transformers from a supplier, ABB in Saint Louis, with the transformers then shuttled to to a substation owned by CenterPoint Energy near Houston. It was not as straightforward as it sounds. A traditional HV transformer is about the size of a one-car garage and has to be transported by rail. It requires a specialized railroad car and since not many such transformers are shipped each year, there aren't very many such cars, so scheduling the use of one is problematic. Worse, many of the places where HV transformers are used don't have rail connections, complicating placement.

EPRI decided to rethink the matter. A traditional HV transformer handles all three phases of an HV line -- three connections in, three connections out. EPRI went for three single-phase transformers -- one connection in, one connection out -- that could be individually handled by a truck trailer. The triplicate scheme is a bit more expensive than a traditional HV transformer, which runs to about $5 million USD to $7 million USD per unit, but it is much more manageable, with each single-phase transformer weighing about 57 tonnes (125,000 pounds) while a traditional HV transformer weighs about 181 tonnes (400,000 pounds). Transformers are normally filled with oil; the oil was hauled separately to further reduce weight. Another advantage of the triplicate approach is that setting up a small transformer is faster than setting up a big one, and three work crews can install three single-phase transformers in parallel.

Utility executives think the idea of a transformer stockpile is a good one, but it poses difficulties. One is that transformers are not highly standardized; the initial model to be stockpiled will only be able to replace about 500 of America's 2,100 HV transformers. Beyond that, the industry sees transformers that will be able to deal with different voltages, which would cover more of the network -- but still not all of it. Infrastructure is built for the long haul and generally not easy to upgrade; coming up with a scheme that could quickly restore a devastated power grid absolutely will not happen soon. Whether the Sun will behave itself until the day comes remains to be seen.

* BATTERY BACKUP: In other electrical grid news, a note in IEEE SPECTRUM discussed how utilities are now becoming more interested in megascale battery installations, primarily to back up renewable energy sources. As one analyst put it, describing a wind farm as having 100 megawatts (MW) of capacity is misleading, that rating giving its maximum capacity when, depending on wind speed, it will produce less than that, all the way down to zero when the wind isn't blowing. Put in a bank of batteries, and it becomes a 40 megawatt plant that runs 24:7:365.

Utilities traditionally avoided batteries, because they were expensive and their life cycles are limited. At present, the world's biggest grid-scale battery is a bank of nickel cadmium cells in Fairbanks, Alaska, that can produce up to 52 MW of emergency backup power for about 15 minutes. Utilities have preferred energy storage schemes such as pumping water uphill and then using it for hydropower -- globally, this scheme stores more than 100 gigawatt-hours (GWh). A more recent approach is to compress air in a cavern, with a few hundred megawatt-hours of such storage capacity now available.

However, thanks mostly to investments made on batteries for electric vehicles, battery technology has substantially improved in the past ten years, with interest from utilities growing accordingly. As the cost of a battery facility drops, its lack of emissions and noise make it particularly attractive for use in built-up areas. AES Energy Storage of Arlington, Virginia, has been setting up battery backup systems of up to 32 MWh so far, with company officials seeking 400 MWh sites not far down the road. Haresh Kamath, program manager for energy-storage research at EPRI, sees batteries as the way of the future for the grid, with electric cars parked in garages pumping electricity back into a household at peak power times. Kamath says: "You could even have storage in each appliance."

A refrigerator with a battery? "That day may come, because when it's cycling on and off, it's putting wear and tear on your electricity connection, and it makes the load on the grid more difficult to control. So maybe a battery there makes sense."



* SMARTPHONES OVER THE TOP: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Joyn Them Or Join Them", 11 August 2012), while 21st century cleverness such as "voice over internet protocol (VOIP)" has hit traditional telephone service organizations hard -- forget about pricey long-distance tolls -- it hasn't made mobile phone operators much happier. Yes, when smartphones came along, the mobile operators were pleased as customers racked up more airtime playing games, watching videos, and engaging in other activities that the operators could make more money on. They weren't so pleased to find that customers were obtaining smartphone apps for VOIP and other services to allow them to bypass the chokehold of the operators.

In the business, such dodges are oddly called "over the top (OTT)" services -- because they go over the heads of the operators, not because they're outrageous, though the operators might think so. There's a range of OTT services, but voice and message apps have been the operators' biggest headaches. Why would a user pay any premium for a phone call if Skype, the VOIP pioneer -- now an arm of Microsoft -- can do it more cheaply? Users can also get WhatsApp, which permits cross-platform messaging via IP, or choose between similar offerings from about a half-dozen other startups with IP dodges for smartphones. Users still rack up basic data charges, unless they can get wi-fi and do it all for effectively free.

One consultancy suggests that OTT messaging cost mobile phone operators about ten percent of their revenue in 2011. It's been clearly hurting operators in the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. However, whether the operators like OTT or not, it's the picture of the future, and they have to react to it.

There are four options. The first is straightforward, if heavy-handed: step on OTT. South Korea's telecoms watchdog office recently told the country's three network operators they could limit use of mobile VOIP. About half of South Koreans have smartphones and nearly all of those use KakaoTalk, a messaging app that has wrecked the operators' SMS business. When KakaoTalk introduced a voice service in June, operators feared the worst and asked for help from the government. They got it, but what the government gives, it can also take away, and South Korean smartphone users are very unhappy -- a serious issue in an election year.

The second option, probably counterproductive over the long run, is for operators to charge more for their basic services -- ensuring they make more money even when customers use OTT -- or cut prices on their premium services so customers won't want to jump on the OTT bandwagon. Some operators now offer unlimited texting as part of a service package.

The third option is to pitch a better deal. The GSMA, the mobile operators' industry body, is promoting a scheme formally titled the "Rich Communication Suite-enhanced (RCS-e)" but marketed more snappily as "joyn". At the outset, joyn will offer messaging, "rich" calls allowing simultaneous sending of pictures and video, and file-sharing; it will provide a base for later addition of other applications. The idea is that joyn will offer a range of nifty services and will be built into phones to operate seamlessly across networks; no need to install an app, no need to be concerned that somebody on the receiving end has the app. The joyn motto is: "It's just there, it just works."

It's not there just yet, Spain being the only place joyn is available at present, but other countries should be on board soon. It won't really "just work" until it's widespread, but handset manufacturers are enthusiastic and are poised to introduce joyn-enabled handsets. There's one significant exception, however, in the form of Apple, which offers OTT for its iPhone and is, to nobody's surprise, perfectly happy to spite the operators.


The fourth option is simple: operators adopting OTT themselves. Telefonica, the Spain-based global mobile giant, is pushing OTT tech, such as TU Me, an IP app for voice and messaging, though the firm is also hedging bets by backing joyn. It may seem self-destructive for Telefonica to back OTT at all and undermine its own profit-making services, but the action can be seen as simply embracing the inevitable to keep its customer base, or even expand it at the expense of competitors. Give them points for nerve.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I made my second yearly road trip to Spokane late in August, this installment being noted by the smoke that blanketed southern Montana, generated by conflagrations in southern Idaho. Butte in particular was so shrouded with haze on the outbound leg of the journey that I couldn't see the horizons. The skies were much clearer on the way back, however,

I'm glad this summer of drought and fires is ending. Colorado pretty much dodged the fires after the disasters of June, but one day in August the sun was crimson at mid-morning, which suggested a lot of smoke. From where? I was puzzled until I found out it was the smoke from the southern Idaho fires. I was surprised to see the smoke so thick after traveling such a distance.

It wasn't personally any more difficult than previous summers, mostly because I was booked up on my time and had plenty to keep me busy. I did get out of taking baths when it was warm: hot baths just drained me, I didn't like cold baths, so I got a big plastic pitcher, filled it with hot water, and wiped myself down with a handcloth. I felt clean and it was much more refreshing; it also conserved water and was less time-consuming than taking a bath.

* My photo hobby went pretty much on the fade after my road trip to the Southwest in the fall of 2009, but for the moment it's bounced way back up. I've become almost inseparable from my new Canon camera. It's not just a question of having a new toy, though that's part of it; I've also moved up a step in my ability to notice things to shoot. Although the Spokane trip was uneventful, I still obtained dozens of good photos -- air tankers in Missoula, antelope in Wyoming, even llamas in southern Montana. One of the llamas had to intently check me out while I was taking its picture; they seem to be creatures with a streak of curiosity.

I'm noticing more things at home as well. I was out mowing the lawn one hot afternoon when a large, goodly-sized green insect flew in and landed in the grass. I didn't bother to inspect it, I just went into the house to grab my camera and then went back out to get some photos. It turned out to be a mantis, which was a bit of a surprise, since I couldn't remember having ever seen one in Colorado. I actually can't recall seeing a mantis more than about a dozen times in my entire life; I have little doubt they're common, but they are well-camouflaged and stealthy.

The mantis was a very cooperative photo subject, in fact it seemed inclined to attack the camera, possibly seeing its own reflection in the lens. I set manual focus to a few centimeters -- at close range, autofocus has a tendency to lock onto foreground or background clutter and not the target -- and took shot after shot of it, trying to gauge the range. I have to use the LCD viewer for shots so low to the ground, but the viewer flips out and pivots, and the camera has a "focus enlarge" button that pops up the area in the image focus to a larger inset window to make focusing easier.


I got 19 pictures of the mantis. On sorting through them, seven were in good focus, which was more than I could have expected. Eliminating redundant shots gave me about three keepers. That's not a complaint, by the way -- that's a surprisingly good ratio. With an 8 GB card, the Canon has a capacity of over 2,400 shots at 4000 x 3000 pixel resolution, or 10,000 shots at 1600 x 1200 pixel resolution; the operational rule is to quickly take as many photos as possible, since there's no real incremental cost to taking twenty instead of just one.

* Another thing that helped revive the hobby was uploading all my photos to Flickr. Partly I wanted to replace the 5% or so of poor shots that I tossed in the course of the upload, roughly half of those being mundane shots that were easily retaken. More importantly, it also gave me an opportunity to review my past work and expand the net for what I would like to shoot in the future. After sorting through over 3,000 photos during the upload, once I got them on Flickr I was too weary to doublecheck that they had all been properly indexed, and I would have been too stale to have noticed much even if I had taken the time. I'll just have to fix the errors as I come across them.