dec 2012 / last mod aug 2016 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: torpedoes, san diego road trip, human microbiome, luminescent deep-sea organisms, seafloor mining, 21st-century Mexico, Minitel, US oil boom, bulk energy storage, America's global drone war, US military health care, and online voting.

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[FRI 14 DEC 12] THE TORPEDO (20)
[FRI 07 DEC 12] THE TORPEDO (19)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2012: As reported by an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("ObamaCare Isn't Going Away -- So Now What?" by Devin Leonard, 10 December 2012), the Obama Administration's Affordable Care ("ObamaCare") Act has not been popular with Republicans, who campaigned against it in the presidential race last year. The act required state governments to set up health insurance exchanges or allow the Federal government to do so; many Republican governors didn't want to set up the exchanges, some hoping that Obama would lose and so it wouldn't be an issue in 2013.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has been a persistent naysayer against ObamaCare, but in a visit to Washington DC in mid-November, he made it clear he would work with the administration to get Florida's health insurance exchange going. Scott was obviously uncomfortable with that admission, but he admitted he just had to face the facts: "[Mitt] Romney didn't win the election, so it's not an option to repeal ObamaCare."

Not all his fellow Republican governors are being so realistic, leaving them in a tortured position. John Gorman, a health-care industry consultant, remarked: "The supreme irony is that these are the states that complained the most about a [Federal] government takeover of their health-care system. That's exactly what they are going to get because of their inaction."

At last count, 17 states and the District of Columbia plan to establish their own health-insurance exchanges, while six others want to partner with the Federal government on the matter. Ten are undecided; 17 want nothing to do with health exchanges, and so are tossing the matter up to the government in Washington DC. That approach has led to little "civil wars" in the state governments of Mississippi and Kansas, with state insurance commissioners trying to push through plans for exchanges against the opposition of governors. The situation in Michigan is troublesome as well, with moderate Republican Governor Rick Snyder pushing for the exchanges against the resistance of the state legislature.

The quandary of the Republicans over the health exchanges was, to a degree, inevitable. The extreme wing of the Republicans does not have much of an agenda other than to say NO at every opportunity. In the face of a Federal government with a plan, just saying NO amounts to nothing more than dealing oneself out of the game -- giving up control while the game rolls on, with somebody else in the driver's seat. The exchanges are supposed to be up and running by October 2013; ObamaCare is going to happen, like it or not.

Bryce Williams, an insurance-industry consultant, put a historical perspective on the matter, saying that President Lyndon Johnson's Medicare Act faced similar resistance after Johnson pushed it through Congress in 1965: "There continued to be complaints in some states for literally a year and a half to two years." Eventually, Williams believes, the recalcitrant state governments will weary of their petulance, accept reality, and pass bills to take over Federally-operated exchanges, which ObamaCare allows them to do. Williams points out that Washington DC "really doesn't want to run these things."

* In the same issue, BUSINESSWEEK'S Charlie Rose chatted with ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, with Gates making a number of interesting comments, for example concerning long-range military planning:


... all the times we've used military force since Vietnam, when it comes to predicting where we will use our military next, we have a perfect record: We've never gotten it right -- not once.


As the saying goes, predictions are always difficult, particularly of the future. The immediate security threats of concern to the USA consist of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Gates suggesting that all we could do for the moment was maintain diplomatic and economic pressure -- but trying to get more acceptable behavior out of such regimes was troublesome because "they don't care how many of their people get killed." If Syria did use chemical weapons on rebel forces, Gates said that President Obama would have to respond with force. Rose asked if Obama would do so, Gates then replying in the emphatic:


Oh yes. One thing about President Obama, he is very tough-minded. And his decision to go after bin Laden, his decisions on Afghanistan in terms of the troop buildup -- this is a guy who relishes making decisions.


* The big news for December 2012 was, of course, yet another no-show for the prophesied end of the world. Then again, how do we know it didn't end and was then remade? It's strange that nobody remembers the staggering cataclysms of Y2K, only a dozen years ago. It would seem like somebody would have noticed.

error 2012

There's something amusing about the idea of some reality hiding under the surface of the one we actually perceive -- of course, THE MATRIX made a hit movie about the idea. The problem is that if we wonder about a hidden reality, then shouldn't we wonder about a reality hidden under that one, too? The answer to that question is simple: "Let's not go there."



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (2): I tinkered with plans for my San Diego road trip into mid-September, figuring out what I wanted to see, how much time I wanted to spend, and when I should go. I determined I only wanted to be gone for a week, more would be too tiresome, so then I had to figure out what I wanted to cram into the trip. I had to think out whether I should see the airshow first or last, but getting over the Rockies can be potentially troublesome due to weather, so I decide to make it the last event, allowing me to leave Colorado earlier. The airshow was also on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and I figured crowds would be lighter if I went to the Friday session.

San Diego road trip 2012

Anyway, as the plan emerged, I would drive to Las Vegas on Monday, 8 October. It's an easy day's drive, about 1,250 kilometers (780 miles), and hotels are relatively cheap there in the off season since there's so much capacity. On Tuesday, I'd get up early -- not so hard to do since I'd still be on Mountain Time, an hour ahead of Western Time -- and go the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, about a half-hour north of San Diego on Interstate 15. The park is a big facility, with open areas where animals run freely, visitors observing them on trams running through fenced corridors. There's a lot of special options that can run into some money, but though money wasn't really an issue, I was going to arrive about midday and I would be hard-pressed to cover the place adequately on the baseline tour. Besides, even when I can afford to spend, I like to make sure I spend efficiently.

On Wednesday I planned to take a San Diego harbor tour. That was high priority, since I'd really enjoyed the Seattle harbor tour I took in 2010; the San Diego harbor tour covered major naval facilities that would be good targets for shots. That would only take two hours, however, but Sea World San Diego was nearby, and I could spend the rest of the day there. I recall visiting Sea World San Diego in the late eighties or early nineties, but I don't remember much of it; it would be interesting to contrast it with my visit to Sea World Orlando in 2007, which I also really enjoyed.

On Thursday I planned to visit the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute in La Jolla on the coast, and then go further up the coast to visit Legoland in Carlsbad. I saw Legoland as "iffy", theme parks having been a real bust to visit on occasion in the past, and videos of the place suggested it's even more kiddie-oriented than the norm for such places. However, I was curious and figured I might get some interesting shots there; if it didn't work out, I'd cut my losses and leave quickly.

On Friday, go to the airshow, with me heading back home on Saturday. I was planning on staying the night in Vegas again, which meant that I had most of a day to kill somehow. I decided to do a lightning tour of Los Angeles, getting up early and going north, about a two-hour drive, to Dockweiler state park in front of the Los Angeles airport to do some planespotting of big intercontinental jetliners. Next to Disney Anaheim; that was particularly iffy, expensive and I couldn't spend a long day there, but I wanted to get shots of the new Radiator Springs attraction. Besides, I figured it was unlikely I would visit any Disney facility again any time soon if ever again, and money wasn't a problem. I'd set a budget of $2,000 USD for the trip, and my figurings suggested I wouldn't come close to spending that much.

Disney Anaheim done, a quick trip to the LA zoo, spending no more than two hours there, and from there out of town to Las Vegas, about a five-hour drive. I'd end up in Vegas that Saturday night, with me then getting back more or less leisurely to Colorado on Sunday. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A "linear induction motor (LIM)" is a type of electric motor used to directly accelerate a load. A simple electric motor configuration includes a ring of fixed coils, the "stator", with an array of magnets on a hub, the "rotor", inside the ring being spun by changing magnetic fields set up by sending currents through the stator. In a LIM, the stator is straightened out and arranged along a track, with magnets attached to a payload to turn it into a "rotor" that is accelerated down the track. LIMs are often used in high-tech roller coasters to give them their initial surge of acceleration.

LIMs have been considered for decades as a space launch booster system, the classic vision being the acceleration of payloads off the surface of the Moon. With low gravity and no atmosphere, a LIM of adequate length could shoot payloads back to Earth. As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, European jetliner maker Airbus has conducted a study in which Earthly jetliners are launched by a LIM system, being accelerated to takeoff speeds along a track (stator) on a trolley (rotor), with the aircraft taking to the air under its own engine power. The trolley would then be shuttled back to the launch point by reversing the operation of the stator track.

The scheme, named "Eco-Climb", does involve building a takeoff track and takeoff trolleys, but it would eliminate the need for jetliners to go to full throttle on takeoff and give them higher initial velocity -- from a track a third shorter than a normal runway, given reasonable levels of acceleration for the passengers. It would mean quieter, faster takeoffs, reducing noise in the vicinity of the airport, and would also mean savings in fuel of about 3%. Given that airliners burn a lot of fuel, that adds up.

It would add up more if airliners could be built more lightly and with less powerful engines; and even more so if aircraft could be designed to land on trolleys, with the motor action used to slow the aircraft down. Eliminating landing gear would save a good deal of weight. However, that's obviously not an idea that would be popular with fare-paying passengers until the trolley system was so widespread and so well debugged that an airliner could safely set down at any airport of reasonable size. No doubt airliners would still have extendable skid landing gear in case they had to perform an emergency landing -- a feature often included in schemes considered over the years for aircraft designed to be carried by airship or aircraft "mother ships". In any case, Airbus doesn't see the scheme as being available any time soon.

* BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK took a snapshot of San Francisco-based inventor Daniel Kim, whose startup company Lim Motors is working on the "C-1" motorcycle. The C-1 would not appeal to the Harley rider crowd: it has a fully enclosed body with steel reinforced doors on each side, plus a seat belt and airbags. Kim describes it as "driving your helmet".

Lim Motors C-1 electrobike

The C-1 is electric powered, with a top speed of 160 KPH (100 MPH) and a range of 320 kilometers (200 miles) per charge. Most intriguingly, it features twin gyroscopes -- each 30 centimeters (a foot) in diameter and spinning at 12,000 RPM, hooked up to a total of seven sensors -- to keep it upright, even when hit by a full-sized pickup truck moving at 55 KPH (35 MPH). Kim is talking about product introduction in 2014, with the price being around $24,000 USD. It looks like one very fun toy, but for me that's too much sticker shock for a toy.

* According to WIRED Online blogs, Goodyear is now working on a self-inflating auto tire. Under-inflated tires correspond to reduced gas mileage, greater tire wear, and increased likelihood of damage. Fleet operators have a particular interest in ensuring proper tire pressure. Goodyear's scheme is conceptually straightforward: a sensor inside the tire monitors pressure, and when the pressure gets too low the sensor opens up a valve in the tire sidewall. The valve feeds a tube in the tire's circumference that its compressed as the tire rotates, pumping air into the tire. When the pressure is on the mark again, the sensor closes the valve. Presumably the sensor is powered by the rotation of the tire.



* MINING THE SEAFLOOR? As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("A Gold Rush In The Abyss" by William J. Broad, 9 July 2012), while the idea of exploiting the mineral riches at the bottom of the sea has been around for decades, it's only now starting to become practical -- partly because the technology has become available, partly because there's a crunch on resources that makes the effort of extracting those minerals more financially rewarding.

Hidden in the deep sea are deposits known as "massive sulfides", rich in sulfur-tainted ores of gold and silver, copper and cobalt, lead and zinc. Nations and commercial companies are in a race to stake claims to the sulfide-rich areas, which dot the volcanic springs of the frigid seabed. Tools to do the job include robots, sensors and other equipment, some of it derived from the offshore oil and gas industry. Environmentalists are understandably worried about how much damage deep-sea mineral exploitation might do; industry has responded with optimistic studies and upbeat statements on the future of the business.

A number of governments are investigating seafloor mining, while private companies have made hundreds of assessments and claims in the volcanic zones around Pacific island nations: Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) -- a traditionally drowsy United Nations body located in Jamaica that oversees mineral rights in international waters -- has been flooded with sulfide deposit queries.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was interest in obtaining metals such as iron and nickel from nodules littering the seafloor, but the return on collecting them was never enough to make it pay. Seafloor mining began to seem more attractive in 1979 with the discovery of "black smokers" -- sulfurous mounds and towers that vent boiling-hot water from the seafloor, the smokers dotting the 74,000 kilometers (46,000 miles) of volcanic fissures that mark the global seabed like seams on a baseball. Researchers discovered that the smokers formed as hot water rose through the volcanic rocks, hit cold seawater, and released a variety of minerals that slowly coalesced into eerie mounds and chimneys, some as tall as office buildings. The smokers turned out to be fascinating undersea oases of unusual organisms; more investigation showed they were loaded with complex minerals that contained impressive amounts of copper, silver and gold.

Rich deposits of metals on land have long been mined out, with copper mines extracting metal from ores with copper concentrations of only half a percent. Seabed explorers fond concentrations of copper of 10% or more, with unusually high concentrations of silver and gold as well. In 1995, Nautilus Minerals of Toronto staked the first claim to undersea mineral, obtaining rights to exploitation of about 5,200 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) of the Papua New Guinea seabed rich in volcanic features.

Nautilus hasn't been quick to begin work, but has been energetic in finding dozens of sites promising for mineral exploitation. In 2011, Nautilus won a 20-year lease to mine a rich deposit in the Bismarck Sea, in the southwestern Pacific. The mounds are 1,600 meters (a mile) down, with the company estimating they hold 9 tonnes (10 tons) of gold and 114,000 tonnes (125,000 tons) of copper. Nautilus hopes to start mining in 2013, but it is a challenging job and delays wouldn't be surprising. In operation, giant deep-sea robots would collect sulfides and pump them to barges on the surface, with the barges then hauling the ores to Rabaul, a Papua New Guinea port about 48 kilometers (30 miles) away.

Environmentalists say that the exercise will be a hazard to fisheries, islanders and ecosystems, with a collaboration that calls itself the "Deep Sea Mining Campaign" producing a study saying the volcanic sites shelter hundreds of species previously unknown to science, and that more evaluation should be performed before mining begins. A Nautilus official replied that the company has been diligent in considering such matters: "We're developing detailed environmental plans and have an obligation to do that. We're very proud of what we've done."

That's certainly sounding exactly the right note, but both mining concerns and environmentalists are keeping a close eye on how the project works out -- miners hoping that it turns out profitable and non-controversial, environmentalists hoping that it doesn't raise hell with oceanic ecosystems. If Nautilus does the job right, it will give the green light for further deep-sea mineral exploitation.

China, the world's biggest consumer of gold, copper and many other industrial metals, is not waiting to see what happens in the Bismarck Sea. When the ISA set up rules for sulfide prospecting in May 2010, Beijing's representative filed the country's application on the same day. China has a small fleet of ships scouring the oceans for seafloor minerals, and is developing a minisubmarine -- named the JIAOLONG, after a mythical sea dragon -- to help with the job.

In 2011 the Chinese signed a contract with the ISA for exclusive sulfide rights to 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) of seafloor, about the size of Puerto Rico, on a volcanic rift deep below the surface of the Indian Ocean. In the meantime Tong Ling, China's largest importer of copper concentrates and one of the world's biggest refiners of copper, has signed a deal with Nautilus for about a million tonnes of Pacific sulfide ores per year -- an amount equal to about 5% of the world's copper production. Russia, France, and South Korea have also jumped in.

Georgy Cherkashov, a Russian marine geologist and president of the International Marine Minerals Society, said that the environmental impact of seafloor mining is less than that of land mining, and environmental concerns aren't going to stop the gold rush: "It's first come, first get." He describes the parceling out of claims as "the last redivision of the world."



* 21ST-CENTURY MEXICO: Americans tend to be oblivious to their Mexican neighbor to the south, few "gringos" paying much mind to the recent changing of the guard, Enrique Pena Nieto having replaced Felipe Calderon as Mexican president. Generally, Americans have a tendency to view Mexico as poor and backwards, and historically there is some basis for that. However, as reported by THE ECONOMIST's business blogger, Schumpeter ("The Global Mexican", 27 October 2012), that vision is somewhat out of date. A generation ago, Mexico defended its borders fanatically against Yanqui imports. Today, thanks partly to the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it is one of the most open large economies in the world. Exports plus imports will reach the equivalent of 69% of GDP in 2012, more than Brazil (19%) or China (48%). Mexico is the world's second-largest exporter of refrigerators, and the second-largest supplier of electronic goods to the United States.

Enrique Pena Nieto

Location helps: no other emerging economy shares a long land border with the world's biggest market. In addition, rising wages in China are making Mexico more competitive. In 2001 Mexican manufacturing wages were four times those in China; now there's not much to choose between them. Add in the price of increasingly expensive fuel, and it is often as cheap to make things in Monterrey and drive them across the Rio Grande as to make them in Guangdong and ship them across the Pacific. It's faster, too; a freight truck can get product from Mexico to anywhere in the USA in a few days. No wonder that Nissan, Honda, GM, Coca-Cola, DuPont and Eurocopter are investing south of the border.

One of the distinctive features of Mexico is that it not only has a globalized elite but also a globalized peasantry. The rich study in the United States; the poor mop floors there. The elite pick up skills and contacts at American universities, helping Mexican firms do business with their giant neighbor. Migrant workers send money home to poor Mexican villages. The scale of border-straddling is huge: one Mexican in ten lives in the United States, some 12 million souls. Add in Americans of Mexican descent and the total comes to 33 million. That means a market for Mexican goods, Corona being the most popular imported beer north of the border.

While American businesses have penetrated Mexico, Mexican businesses have also penetrated America. Grupo Bimbo, Mexico's biggest baker, is also America's, having bought the North American baking arm of Sara Lee in 2011. Daniel Servitje, GB's Stanford-educated boss, is multilingual and cosmopolitan. Grupo Bimbo sells tortillas in the United States and American-style bagels in Mexico. Servitje plans to invest $1 billion USD in the United States in the next five years to build zippier, cheaper bakeries, seeking consolidation in a business that has long been fragmented. He hopes to obtain economies of scale and synergies of ideas between markets.

Grupo Bimbo is not alone in its internationalism. Cemex is the largest seller of certain types of cement in the United States; Alfa, a conglomerate, drills for gas in Texas -- the bosses of both Cemex and Alfa are also Stanford graduates. While the USA is the most attractive market, of course Mexico also looks south to its Latin neighbors. Of the 19 countries where Grupo Bimbo operates, only Spain, Portugal, and China are in the Old World.

Concerns remain about doing business in Mexico. The country still is burdened by poverty and illiteracy -- about 1 in 7 Mexicans can't read or write -- but that is less of a worry than the out-of-control drug war, which produces thousands of casualties a year. Big investors aren't usually targeted, however, the gangsters not being wired tightly enough into foreign car factories and such to know what to steal. Servitje says his trucks are rarely robbed, few seeing bread, tortillas, and cakes as worth the effort to steal and dispose of. However, although the government has made some progress against the gangs, nobody sees the problem as going away as long as there's a market for illegal drugs north of the border. As Latins have pointed out, they're not corrupting America, America is corrupting them.

Another serious problem is government corruption and red tape. It's nowhere near as bad as it used to be, with the World Bank ranking Mexico the 48th best country on the planet to do business, but Mexican authorities still can be a pain to deal with. In addition, big Mexican firms tend to have monopolistic reach; Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, controls more than 70% of the Mexican mobile-phone market. It may be arguable that monopoly power is inherently corrupt, but few see it as healthy.

The biggest brake on Mexican business development, however, has been the effective closure of the border with the USA, both because of tougher enforcement and because poor economic conditions make America less attractive a destination for migrant workers. Shutting out Mexicans tends to be popular with the American public, but it does have the drawback of making problems for doing business across the border. How that is managed remains an issue for discussion between Enrique Pena Nieto and Barack Obama -- a discussion hopefully informed by the mutual realization that both are well better off as friends than as bickering antagonists.



* IN THE REALM OF LUMINOUS BEINGS (1): The deep waters of the ocean are realms of darkness, where much of the light is generated by the organisms that live there. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Light In The Deep" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 9 March 2012), researchers are now learning much about how those organisms make, use, and perceive light.

Allison Sweeney, now a postdoc researcher at the University of California in Santa Barbara, was collecting squid from the Gulf of California in 2006 and found a strange fish in her trawl net. The fish was about ten centimeters (four inches) long and had upward-turned eyes with an odd green tint. She shined purple light on the lens of the eye and was startled to see the lens converted the purple light into green light to produce green images. Not knowing what to make of the matter at the time, she filed the issue away in her notes.

In 2011, Sweeney trawled up more of the fish. This time, working with colleagues, she investigated the strange eyes in detail, finding that they not only converted external light to green fluorescent light, they also focused the green light on the retina. Fluorescent light usually is emitted omnidirectionally, and it was unclear just how the lens focused it on the back of the eye. The green-eyed fish, formally known as Cholorophthalamus agassizi, lives in the deep dark seas, where most of the light it perceives comes from bioluminescent organisms that emit flashes. It appears that, instead of having photoreceptors covering different light bands, the fish more efficiently converts the faint light over a range of bands into green fluorescent light, with photoreceptors optimized for that green light.

Deep sea organisms play a wide range of tricks with light:

Other deep-sea organisms use bioluminescence to distract predators, or to attract the attention of predators that prey on the predators; some organisms are transparent for concealment. Such adaptations have fascinated scholars for centuries, but only now are they starting to understand their structure and function.

* The feeble light of the deeps turns out to be key to the lives of the organisms there. In open ocean, light dims tenfold every 75 meters (250 feet), and is all but extinguished at a depth of a kilometer (3,280 feet). A descent into the deeps gradually reveals a constellation of flashing bioluminescent organisms, covering most types of marine life, from bacteria to fish, comb jellies featuring the widest range of bioluminescent species. The flashes can last from tens of milliseconds to many seconds; they may be intermittent or regular, with flash rates of 160 per second having been recorded.

The availability of light tends to strongly influence the form of deep-water organisms. Over the range of depths from 150 to 650 meters (500 to 2,150 feet), fish tend to be silvery, with dark backs to keep them hidden from above and light organs on the belly to keep them hidden from below. Below such depths, fish and crustaceans tend to be red or black; red light has the least penetration in the deeps and most of the bioluminescence generated by predators is bluish, so red and black give the least visibility.

While researchers had long pulled up bioluminescent organisms from the deeps and encountered them on infrequent deep-sea research expeditions, it wasn't realized until the 1950s just how widespread bioluminescence was in the dark regions below the surface. Researchers began to perform studies with photomultiplier tubes -- light-amplifying tubes -- lowered into the sea, and were surprised to find out how much light there was in places where it shouldn't be. The US Navy, worried that bioluminescent organisms might reveal the tracks of deep-diving submarines, eventually funded research into the subject. One of the beneficiaries of the funding was Edith Widder, a marine biologist and boss of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, Florida. Widder and her colleagues used new tools developed for deep-sea studies to create a dictionary of flash patterns, to be used to identify different plankton emitters and map plankton distributions. The dictionary is still far from complete, Widder commenting: "There's a whole language of light down there, and we are barely beginning to understand it."

Concerned that submersibles were scaring off organisms they wanted to investigate, Widder and her colleagues came up with an ultrasensitive camera that images in the deep red, as well as an "electronic jellyfish" fitted with LED lamps to emulate the "burglar alarm jelly" -- which fires off a light pattern when disturbed, apparently to attract predators that will eat whatever is bothering the jellyfish.

Eye In The Sea platform

Her team installed one of these "Eye In The Sea" platforms at the bottom of Monterey Bay in California in 2011, which brought in a haul of information. Systems carried by research vessels have also been refined. In the 1990s, it was difficult to give specimens a good inspection in a shipboard lab, with gear such as spectrometers being expensive, bulky, and requiring liquid nitrogen coolant. Now compact spectrometers can be obtained for a few thousand dollars. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (1): My new Canon Powershot SX40HS zoom camera having revitalized by photo hobby to an extent, I got to thinking of taking another long road trip to take shots. I hadn't been on a big road trip since I went to New Mexico and north Texas in 2009; although road trips had become tiresome by that time, it had been three years, long enough to think it might be interesting to do another one. I saw it as a one-shot, with no consideration given to further trips. Limiting my expectations made the trip seem less challenging.

On poking around online, I found that there was a popular airshow at the US Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar in the San Diego metro area that would take place the second weekend in October. The more I looked at that, the more I liked the idea. As preparation, on the first Thursday in September I took a day trip down to Denver, mostly to try out the camera -- no point of going on a camera trip and then finding out I fumbled far more shots than I should have -- as well as check out my tolerance for travel.

I went to the Denver zoo and then did some planespotting at the approaches of Denver International Airport. The camera did everything I expected of it. I got some great shots of a kookaburra, a big Aussie variant of a kingfisher, something I had been after for years. The kookaburra was in an open-air aviary; all other times I saw one, it was in an enclosure of some sort or other that kept me from getting a good shot.


The camera's low-light mode -- which cuts resolution from 4000x3000 pixels to 2000x1500 pixels, ganging up pixels in quads for sensitivity, one of the reasons I bought the camera -- worked like a charm. I got a few shots that couldn't have possibly have picked up with any other of the other ten digital cameras I've owned. Incidentally, the first was a Polaroid I bought in 2002 with a resolution of all of 0.8 megapixels, and three of my old cameras are getting a good workout at my brother Terry's house in Spokane, having given one each to my niece, nephew, and sister-in-law. I still have five others in my possession.

The planespotting was a bust, but it was educational. It wasn't the camera's fault, it worked as specified. The camera has 35x zoom, which is fantastic for the price, but the zoom not only magnifies the target, it also magnifies atmospheric distortion. It was a fairly hot day and the aircraft images were warped by the random turbulence of the hot air. It's got nothing to do with the camera as such, any zoom camera has to deal with the same issue; I might go down and try it again in November when the air is steadier.

Incidentally, I did notice from the shots that some of the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737s that I snapped had a fairing on the rear spine of the aircraft, something that I hadn't seen before. I was puzzled, until the answer popped into my head: ah, comlink for wireless services, the airlines are getting into that technology.

* The day trip was also educational in warning me about the pitfalls of going out on the road. One issue was making sure I stayed adequately fed. As I've got older, it seems my metabolism has slowed down and I don't burn much energy sitting around typing all day at my computer -- so I've learned to eat more lightly, all the more so because I don't digest my meals as readily as I used to. However, when I spend hours running around I burn energy as fast as I ever did, and if I've just had a light meal, I can get famished very quickly. I only spent about two hours at the zoo, going all the way around it in a brisk walk in the hot sun, and at the end I was approaching a physical crash state. I went to a McDonald's and got a chicken sandwich, to feel much better.

Unfortunately the next day, Friday, I had real problems. I have a chronic condition, not a serious one and not rare among the over-the-hill: junk accumulates in my inner ear and activates the hairs connected to the auditory nerves, and it can result in nausea and vertigo to the extent of making it hard to stand up or walk. I do ten minutes of therapy every day to deal with it: sit up straight for 30 seconds, lie down with head tilted to one side for 30 seconds, sit up straight for 30 seconds, lie down with head tilted to the other side for 30 seconds. It's highly effective at shifting around the accumulation. I read while I'm doing it, it's no bother at all.

I was really ill that Friday, however. I did six therapy sessions and felt much better on Saturday, though I was still unsteady on my feet, and turning around too fast gave me a whiff of nausea. The disturbing part was that the attack seemed to have been triggered by becoming exhausted in Denver; I couldn't say that for a fact, but I hadn't had a serious attack in years, and I otherwise had no notion where it could have come from. The idea of getting ill on the road trip didn't seem very appealing, so I tried to make sure I did several therapy sessions a day from then to get some insurance against it happening again. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for November included:

-- 02 NOV 12 / LUCH 5B, YAMAL 300K -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Luch 5B" and "Yamal 300K" geostationary comsats into orbit for Rozcosmos and Gazprom Space Systems respectively. Both spacecraft were built by Reshetnev Information Satellite systems. Luch 5B was a space systems data relay satellite comparable to the US TDRSS system and the second in the Luch 5 series, following the launch of "Luch 5A" in December 2011. Luch 5B had a launch mass of 1,140 kilograms (2,513 pounds) and was placed in the geostationary slot at 95 degrees East longitude, its primary mission being to support Russian activities on the International Space Station.

Yamal 300K had a launch mass of 1,640 kilograms (3,615 pounds), a payload of 8 C-band / 18 Ku-band transponders, and a 14-year design life. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 90 degrees East longitude to provide video and data services to Russia and neighboring nations.

-- 10 NOV 12 / EUTELSAT 21B, STAR ONE C3 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou to put the "Eutelsat 21B" and "Star One C3" geostationary comsats into orbit. Eutelsat 21B, previously "W6A", was built by Thales Alenia Space using the Spacebus 4000 C3 comsat bus. The satellite had a launch mass of 5,010 kilograms (11,050 pounds), carried a payload of 40 Ku-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 21.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services for Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. It replaced the "Eutelsat 21A" spacecraft, launched in 1999, in that orbital slot, giving Intelsat a constellation of 29 comsats, operating from 20 orbital slots to provide communications services to 150 nations.

Star One C3 was launched for Star One SA of Brazil. The satellite was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the Orbital Star 2.4E bus. It had a launch mass of 3,225 kilograms (7,114 pounds), a payload of 28 C-band / 16 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 16 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 75 degrees West longitude to provide communications services across South America. It replaced "BrasilSat B3" satellite, launched in 1998, in that position.

-- 14 NOV 12 / MERIDIAN 6 -- A Soyuz 2-1A Fregat booster was launched from Plesetsk to put a Meridian military comsat into a Molniya-type high-inclination orbit. It was the sixth Meridian payload launched since 2006.

-- 18 NOV 12 / HUANJING 1C, SMALLSATS x 2 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Huanjing 1C" radar imaging environmental satellite into orbit; "Huanjing" is Chinese for "environment". Huanjing 1C followed two optical-imaging Huanjing satellites launched in 2008 and had a launch mass of 890 kilograms (1,960 pounds).

Huanjing 1C launch from Taiyuan

The Huanjing 1C launch also put two other payloads into orbit, including the "Xinyan 1" technology test smallsat, and the "Fengniao 1" (FN-1) dual satellite payload to test formation flight technologies. The "FN-1A" satellite in the duo had a launch mass of 160 kilograms (352 pounds) while the "FN-1B" satellite had a launch mass of 30 kilograms (66 pounds). They were based on the new "mini-bus" and "micro-bus" satellite buses developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

-- 20 NOV 12 / ECHOSTAR 16 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the EchoStar "EchoStar 16" geostationary comsat into orbit for DISH Network. Echostar 16 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L LS-1300 satellite bus; it had a launch mass of 6,650 kilograms (14,660 pounds), 32 Ku band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 61.5 degrees West longitude to provide direct-to-home TV services across North America. The satellite also carried a disk with 100 images of humanity and nature, part of a project by artist Trevor Paglen called "The Last Pictures." The images were micro-etched on a silicon disc encased in a gold-plated shell.

-- 25 NOV 12 / YAOGAN 16 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Yaogan 16" satellite into orbit. It was believed to be a naval surveillance satellite, possibly with three collaborative payloads.

-- 27 NOV 12 / CHINASAT 12 -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Chinasat 12" geostationary comsat into orbit for China Satcom. The spacecraft was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the Thales Spacebus 4000 C2 satellite platform, with care to make the satellite "ITAR-free" -- that is, avoiding use of US-restricted components. The satellite had a launch mass of 4,990 kilograms (11,000 pounds), a payload of 24 C-band / 23 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 87.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to customers in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: After intensive budget negotiations, one participant describing it as "like trying to solve simultaneous equations and play poker at the same time", the European Space Agency has laid out a five-year budget. The ESA committed to continue with the next-generation Ariane 6 booster; the ExoMars Mars program, though given the many shifts in ExoMars it's not entirely certain what will end up flying; and collaboration with the USA on the Orion space capsule, ESA leveraging off their ATV space freighter to work on the Orion service module. A robot lunar lander didn't make the cut, however; the money just wasn't there.


There was money to fund a science mission, the "Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite (CHEOPS)", to cost about 50 million euros ($62 million USD) and to launch in 2017. It it the first in the ESA "S Series" of small space science missions; Switzerland is the lead nation in the ESA collaboration, the University of Bern being the science lead in the project. CHEOPS will be placed into low Earth orbit to observe "exoplanets" -- extrasolar planets -- through their "occultations" of their parent stars -- that is, the slight change in stellar brightness as the planet crosses the line of sight between CHEOPS and the star. The platform will not be hunting for new exoplanets, however, instead focusing on more detailed analysis of known exoplanets.

* As reported by AVIATION WEEK, the US NASA and Japanese JAXA space agencies are entering the test phase on a new climate study spacecraft, the "Global Precipitation Mission (GPM)". It will be a follow-on to the US-Japan "Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM)", launched by the Japanese in 1997 and, remarkably, still in service. GPM will use its sensors, as well as rainfall sensors on other environmental observation satellites datalinked to GPM, to obtain measurements of unprecedented detail of rainfall, snowfall, and the actions of major storms. The data should help improve our understanding both of climate and of weather activity.

The GPM "Core Observatory" spacecraft carries two Japanese-made synthetic aperture radars (SARs), collectively named the "Dual Frequency Propagation Radar (DPR)". The radars will scan down through the atmosphere in the Ka and Ku bands -- 35.5 gigahertz and 13.6 gigahertz respectively, straddling the band in which atmospheric water vapor blocks radar signals -- to provide better three-dimensional data on precipitation structures, including very light rain and snow. The older TRMM spacecraft carried a single Ku-band radar.

GPM Core Observatory satellite

The GPM satellite also carries an advanced radiometer, the "GPM Microwave Imager (GMI)", that will passively measure energy from falling precipitation over 13 frequency bands. The 3,200 kilogram (7,055 pound) spacecraft will be launched by a JAXA H-2A booster in 2014 from the agency's space center on Tanegashima island in southern Japan. The program suffered almost a year's delay due to facilities damage caused by the earthquake that hit Japan in March 2011.



* THE RISE & FALL OF MINITEL: The French tend to be technophiles at least as much as Americans. As a case in point, while the internet and the web are now universal, as reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Minitel: The Rise & Fall Of The France-Wide Web" by Hugh Schofield, 27 June 2012), the French were surfing online well before the rest of us, thanks to their "Minitel" network -- in effect, France's very own national data network.

The idea of Minitel grew out of the technological ambitions of the government of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the late 1970s, the exercise being seeded by a technical report that suggested the French national telephone network could be complemented by a visual information system, accessed through screen-keyboard terminals. According to Karin Lefevre of France Telecom: "As well as being a technological project, it was political. The aim was to computerize French society and ensure France's technological independence."

After a pilot test in Brittany, Minitel went national in 1982, though at the outset all it really offered was an online phone directory. It was only getting started, however, with other services then emerging: banking, stock prices, weather reports, travel reservations, exam results, university applications, and some government services. All users had to do was punch the proper phone number into the terminal keyboard, and then follow the instructions that poured out in monochrome alphanumerics on the Minitel terminal CRT display.

Minitel terminal

By today's standards it was crude, but it was "state of the art" for the 1980s, and it was very easy to use. It was also heavily backed by the French government, and in fact the government, with its traditional inclination towards statist programs, could make it work. All French citizens were given their own Minitel terminals by the then state-owned France Telecom (and later its successor, the PTT). Everyone had a Minitel terminal -- though that wasn't enough in itself, there also had to be content. In the beginning, the newspapers were against Minitel, worrying that it would drain off their ad revenue -- but the government shrewdly enlisted their support, giving the newspapers effective control over Minitel content, establishing registered newspapers as the only authorized content providers.

The newspapers liked that deal very much, and in fact became very enthusiastic about cooking up new services for Minitel. They could charge fees, with the money collected by France Telecom and handed back to the content providers. Of course, given the attractions of the money, people on the make discovered that it was very easy to set up a registered newspaper, start Minitel services, and then never print a single newspaper.

The most profitable service turned out to be something nobody had envisaged, though in hindsight it was only too obvious -- the "Minitel Rose". With names like "3615-CUM" ("CUM" meaning "WITH" in Latin, it is unclear what other connotations it might have to francophones), this was a sex chat service in which men paid to exchange typed-out sex fantasies with anonymous "dates", most of them operating out of call center facilities. Billboards with "hot babes" advertising "3615-<something>" were easy to see all across France until fairly recently. Some users spent huge sums on the services, and some of the vendors got very rich.

In 1997, there were nine million Minitel sets around France, with about 25 million users, and an impressive 26,000 services on offer. President Jacques Chirac proclaimed: "Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel. Can the same be said of the baker in New York?"

That, however, was the last hurrah of Minitel, since by that time the global internet was already zooming past it. Minitel never really got out of France, except for some penetration of Belgium; France Telecom set up a pilot project in Ireland in the early 1990s and it went nowhere. Even by then, it was technically behind the times, and nobody wanted to buy the clunky Minitel terminals. Attempts to emulate Minitel elsewhere -- Prestel in the UK, Ibertex in Spain, Teleguide in Sweden, and so on -- were busts as well.

Minitel was finally turned off completely at the end of June 2012. At the time, about 600,000 terminals were still in use. We may find Minitel quaint and toylike in hindsight, but in its prime, there was nothing else in the world to compare to it. Says Karin Lefevre: "Of course it looks terribly old-fashioned by today's standards. But it was simple to use. You pressed a button and it did something. Just like on a tablet today."



* AMERICAN OIL RENAISSANCE: As reported by an article from TIME Online ("The US Will Be an Oil Giant Again. But It Won't Be Energy Independent" by Bryan Walsh, 13 November 2012), ever since the 1970s America has been gradually becoming ever more hooked on imported oil, despite all cries for energy independence. However, as mentioned here in the spring, thanks to new technologies to exploit hydrocarbons trapped in shales, US production of natural gas and oil has been booming. Coupled to conservation efforts, the country now only needs to import 20% of its oil. The US energy boom also means getting Americans back to work and profits for American businesses.

More startlingly, a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that by around 2020, the USA will be the world's biggest oil producer, overtaking both Russia and Saudi Arabia; by 2030, North America as a whole will become a net oil exporter. Coupled with continued efforts to improve energy conservation and greater use of renewable energy sources, America stands fair to finally achieve energy self-sufficiency.

However, that won't mean complete energy independence. The USA is a component -- a major component, but a component nonetheless -- of a global economic system. It will be nice indeed if America can provide all its own energy, but the price of energy is determined on the global market. That global market is confronted with pressures as developing nations such as China and India become bigger energy consumers. Any political crisis that impacts the global oil market will impact American oil. We can't wall ourselves off from the world.

Of course, the IEA's forecast is based on many assumptions -- for example, that shale oil will keep producing as per current trends. The problem is that shale wells tend to dry up much more rapidly than conventional wells, and so to sustain output, oil firms must drill and drill and keep on drilling. How sustainable is such a strategy? In addition, although worries about the environmental impact of shale oil production are subdued right now, as well they might be in a time of high unemployment and sluggish business, that may not always be the case.

That leads to the greater issue of carbon emissions, a worry that is even more subdued these days than concerns over shale oil drilling. Although reducing carbon emissions is going nowhere for the moment, nervousness over climate is on the increase -- and if the predictions of climatologists are correct, things are going to get steadily more ominous. The IEA report itself presents the possibility that by 2017, the world's existing energy infrastructure will "lock in" the world to a 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise, regarded by many climatologists as the "redline" threshold for drastic climate change.

Ultimately, the global oil economy is going to run out of steam; there's no argument about that, the only question is when. Over the long run, we need, must have, a more sustainable society. Renewable energy, for all the sneers thrown at it, is steadily becoming cheaper, though it still only provides a small fraction of America's energy and there's no prospect over the short term of it taking over the load. Conservation gets even more sneers, some appearing to despise the idea on principle without consideration of practicality -- but as noted above, even a self-sufficient America will still be tied to the world energy market, and global energy production is going to be straining to keep up with demand.

It doesn't take any forecast to know that the days of cheap energy are over; conservation will become more popular simply because it pays. The only question about that is whether the government should or can prod the process along, and it's hard to prove the answer to that question must be NO.



* HUMAN MICROBIOME (5): Microbiome research preceded the HMP and MetaHIT, but those two programs put microbiome research on the highway. At the outset, tools for such research were lacking, but now they are readily available, including high throughput DNA sequencing; effective and cheap techniques for cataloging millions of sequences at a time; and identification of bacterial species without having to culture them -- as mentioned earlier, by use of the 16S rRNA marker.

The results have been spectacular. For example, MetaHIT researchers have carried out a sequencing study on 124 test subjects from Denmark and Spain, finding a total of at least a thousand bacterial species inhabiting the gut, with each test subject carrying an average of about 160 species. In all, MetaHIT researchers have found 3.3 million genes in the gut microbiome alone, and have suggested that people have one of three "enterotypes" dominated by a particular bacterial genus -- a matter mentioned here in 2011.

HMP, of course, hasn't been idle, with researchers having sequenced a total of 2,000 bacterial genomes, the final objective for 2012 being 3,000. HMP-funded studies have decoded microbial genomes found in the gut, mouth, nose, skin, and reproductive tract, revealing how microbiomes vary between individuals and body sites. Other studies investigated the workings of the microbiome in diseases of the gut, reproductive tract, and skin.

With the two programs ending, so what next? There's an intense debate going on over whether the focus should be on gathering more observational data on healthy / unhealthy microbiomes, or on tracing out the actual mechanisms through which microbiome changes lead to disease. There's definitely a need for still better tools for "computational genomics", such as new databases, analysis algorithms, and software practices; as well as refinement of experimental methods to zero in on mechanisms of microbiome-associated diseases. Lita Proctor envisions an "HMP2" as focusing on new bioinformatics and computational tools, as well as enhanced exploitation of mouse and other animal models to get details on microbiome interactions.

Some researchers don't think that will be enough, however, believing that the next stage will require global-scope surveys of human microbiomes, and tracking microbiome changes in a set of individuals for decades. Ah, but that leads to the question of money, and there's of course differences of opinion on that. Not that there's disagreement that more money would be nice, people talking about twice to five times the funding of HMP; but there are worries that if HMP2 becomes a "Moon shot" project of sorts the little guys, the independent researchers, will get squeezed out. Proctor says independent work should be supported, but that for the immediate future a targeted approach should be followed. She adds that HMP also helped catalyze wider funding for microbiome research in general, claiming that HMP led to eight times as much money from the NIH for microbiome research beyond the HMP program.

What about Europe? The European Community is putting out a call for proposals on microbiome research to follow MetaHIT. Draft proposals suggest more targeted studies, such as analysis of differences in microbiome profiles between different human populations; a focus on autoimmune and inflammatory diseases; and techniques for restoring the microbiome after it is disrupted by antibiotics or other treatments. Funding is expected to increase dramatically as well. Even now the French government is backing new microbiome efforts, helping to set up the ten-year MetaGenoPolis project, which will create a biobank of up to a million stool samples, as well as expand gene profiling and high-throughput gene screening of the microbiome.

* Microbiome researchers have good reason to look forward to boom times, but they also have obstacles. One is qualification of microbiome techniques for medical use; that's not something the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is used to dealing with or really knows how to handle, and so clinical trials could be problematic. Researchers are also concerned about the "grossly misleading" advertising of probiotics manufacturers -- claims that are based on little or no science, and so could end up discrediting microbiome research in general.

However, all agree that microbiome research will have a major impact, and likely very soon. According to Proctor: "Unlike the human genome, the microbiome is changeable, and it is this changeability that holds real promise." [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 14 DEC 12] THE TORPEDO (20)

* THE TORPEDO (20): Postwar work on lightweight torpedoes, primarily for aircraft drop, led to the "Mark 43" torpedo, introduced in the early 1950s. It was an active homing torpedo and very lightweight, the Mod 3 having a form factor of 25 x 232 centimeters (10 x 91.5 inches) and a weight of 120 kilograms (265 pounds), including a 24.5 kilogram (54 pound) warhead. Speed was 39 KPH (18 MPH / 16 KT) and range was 4,130 meters (4,500 yards). About 5,000 were built, with the weapon serving with the USN through the 1950s.

The Mark 43 was replaced by the "Mark 44" active-homing torpedo. The Mark 44 was developed by NOTS Pasadena and GE, being placed into production in 1957. It was substantially heavier than the Mark 43, though still small by traditional torpedo standards, the Mod 1 initial production variant featuring a form factor of 32 x 257 centimeters (12.75 x 101.3 inches) and a weight of 196 kilograms (433 pounds), including a 33 kilogram (73 pound) warhead. It was powered by a seawater battery and had a speed of 56 KPH (34 MPH / 30 KT), with a range of 16,500 meters (18,000 yards). The Mark 44 was provided to US allies, and built by several European nations under license.

* The Mark 44 served into the late 1960s, being replaced by the definitive "Mark 46" lightweight passive / active homing torpedo. The Mark 46 entered service in 1965 and became the standard USN lightweight torpedo up to the present day. It obtained improved performance through use of a piston combustion engine driven by monopropellant Otto fuel.

The Mark 46 had a form factor of 32 x 259 centimeters (12.75 x 102 inches) and a weight of 230 kilograms (509 pounds), with a 44.5 kilogram (98 pound) warhead. Performance was similar to that of the Mark 44, though homing and guidance was much more sophisticated. The Mark 46 was the payload for the "antisubmarine rocket (ASROC)", which could toss the torpedo over a range of up to 28 kilometers (15 NMI). It was also the warload for the CAPTOR (Captive Torpedo) mine, which was anchored to the seafloor and launched the torpedo when sensors indicated a target within range. The Mark 46 was produced in a number of mods up to the "Mod 5", released in 1979.

Mark 46 torpedo

The Mark 46 was in service for a long time, and so a service life extension program (SLEP) was initiated in 1996 to provide refurbished frames and updated electronics subsystems. The Mark 46 was supposed to be replaced by the "Mark 50", a slightly larger and much more sophisticated torpedo, but the Mark 50 was too gold-plated to be put into full production, and so the Navy decided to simply incorporate useful Mark 50 subsystems into the Mark 46 frame -- resulting in the "Mark 54", which is externally difficult to tell from a Mark 46. The Mark 54 went into production in 2004 and has now generally replaced the Mark 46.

* Although the USA took a lead in torpedo development after World War II, the rest of the world wasn't idle. Some European nations license-built US designs, while others came up with their own advanced torpedoes. The Soviets, working with German technology, refined the "wake homing" system, and even developed a rocket torpedo, the "Skvall (Squall)", capable of achieving 360 KPH (225 MPH / 195 KT) by generating a coating of bubbles, a scheme known as "supercavitation".

However, although the torpedo remains an important, arguably the most important, antisubmarine weapon, for surface attack it has been to a good degree supplanted by the submarine-launched antiship missile, which gives a submarine an "aerial torpedo" that permits it to stand well off from a target vessel -- or given a variant missile design, a ground target well inland, something beyond the capability of any torpedo. World War II, it seems, was the zenith of the torpedo; the weapon seems likely to survive indefinitely into the 21st century, but it's hard to think it's going to see much use. There is of course something to be said in favor of weapons that never see battle. [END OF SERIES]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, rabies infections kill more than 55,000 people a year in Africa and Asia, almost always as a result from being bitten by a rabid dog. Without immediate treatment with antibiotics and vaccines, the disease was regarded as 100% fatal: nobody survived.

There have been tales of people who survived rabies, but nobody has ever confirmed such stories -- until now. In 2010, researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) visited two villages in the Amazon region in western Peru where infections with rabies, usually from bites by vampire bats, had been reported several times in the last few years. They interviewed 92 people in 51 households and collected blood samples from 63 of them. The samples were frozen, shipped back to Atlanta, and then screened for antibodies that could bind and neutralize the rabies virus. Seven of the 63 blood samples tested positive. One of those subjects had told the team he had been vaccinated, but the other six had said they hadn't, suggesting their immune system had learned to deal with the deadly virus on its own.

CDC researchers suspect that the relative resistance may be unique to the remote Peruvian population -- due to genetics, lifestyle, or possibly exposure to some unknown pathogen that reinforces the immune system against the rabies virus. One notion is that the strain of rabies that infects bats is weaker than it is in other animals. One researcher comments: "I don't think this could happen in someone with dog rabies. To me it looks like bat rabies is just more wimpy."

* The tenacious bacterial pathogen known as Clostridium difficile AKA C. diff has been mentioned here in the past, last at the beginning of the year. As noted then, C. diff, an infection of the lower intestinal tract, can be extremely hard to treat, with one of the few effective methods being a "fecal transplant" to reintroduce intestinal flora taken from a healthy donor.

Fecal transplants, although generally effective, sound dodgy on the face of it, both from the view of the patient and from the point of view of medical regulators. As reported by BBC WORLD Online, researchers at the Sanger Institute in the UK have been looking for a more sanitized approach to treating C. diff. The researchers infected mice with C. diff, and then treated them with bacterial cultures grown in mouse feces. Using cultures with different bacterial compositions, they zeroed in on one formulation made up of six bacterial species, including three not previously identified, that would kill off C. diff. The "super-six" cocktail cleared the infection in all of a set of 20 infected mice. The bacterial mix can be cultured in the lab, making it more convenient and predictable than obtaining a fecal sample for transplant.

Of course, as the researchers point out, there are differences between the bacteria growing in the guts of mice and people, so the same experiments now need to be repeated to find an equivalent cocktail for people. Ultimately, C. diff patients might be able to simply pop a pill to deal with their affliction.

* In one of the latest exercises in genomic analysis, researchers have decoded the oyster genome. Oysters live in the harsh environments of estuaries and shoreline regions, where they are subject to extremes of temperature and salinity -- often being exposed to the air and sun on a regular cycle, as well as predators in both marine and surface environments. Since oysters aren't very mobile, they have to essentially sit and take whatever is thrown at them. To no great surprise, the oyster has a large set of genes to help it cope.

The decoding of the organism's genome is expected to help in oyster farming, which is a multi-million dollar industry, centered around China, Japan, Korea and the US. An international team of scientists from China, the US, and Europe, carried out the genome sequencing work. The DNA sequence of the oyster will be compared with other mollusc genomes, including the California sea hare and the giant owl limpet.



* ENERGY ON DEMAND: One of the biggest limitations of renewable energy is that it is inconstant; wind doesn't blow all the time, solar power goes away at night and in overcast weather. It would help a great deal if power generated by renewable systems could be stored and then doled when it's needed. As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Packing Some Power", 3 March 2012), there's considerable interest in large-scale energy storage systems, not just to "time shift" energy from when it's produced to when it's needed, but also to "peak shave", providing additional energy at times of very high demand. At present, battery technology can't do the job, and so other technologies are being considered.

The most prominent scheme for bulk energy storage at present is "pumped-storage hydropower (PSH)", which amounts to pumping water uphill so a dam can then release it to generate electricity. Worldwide, PSH accounts for over 99% of bulk storage capacity -- about 127 gigawatts-hours (GWh). However, as it's implemented now, PSH is very dependent on convenient topography, and so making more use of it is problematic.

People are now exploring variations on the idea. One is the "Green Power Island" concept devised by Gottlieb Paludan, a Danish architecture firm, working with researchers at the Technical University of Denmark. The idea is to build an artificial island around a central reservoir, with the island littered with wind turbines. When the wind blows, the turbines pump water out of the reservoir into the sea; when power is needed, seawater is allowed to flow back into the reservoir, spinning generator turbines as it flows in.

Green Power Island

Gravity Power, a California startup, has devised a PSH system that uses two water-filled shafts, one wider than the other, with the shafts linked at both ends. To store power, water is pumped down through the smaller shaft to raise a floating piston in the bigger shaft; when power is needed, the piston is allowed to force the water down in the bigger shaft, spinning a turbine as it flows out. Company officials point to the relatively compact configuration of their scheme, saying that extra modules can be added if more storage is required.

"Compressed air energy storage (CAES)" is also in use at present, though not much use, with only two plants now in operation: one in Huntorf, Germany, and the other in McIntosh, Alabama. The big problem with CAES is its inefficiency, with the energy released not amounting to even half of the energy stored. The difficulty is that air heats up when pressurized and cools down when expanded. In existing CAES systems, energy is lost as heat during compression, and the air must then be reheated before expansion. The energy to do this usually comes from natural gas, cutting into efficiency.

Efforts are now underway to get CAES working more efficiently. RWE, a German utility, is working with energy-technology giant General Electric (GE) and others to develop a CAES scheme that stores the heat produced by compression and then uses it to heat the stored air during expansion. Preliminary studies show the scheme works, but serious practical issues have to be addressed, such as pumps that can handle 70 atmospheres of pressure and ceramic heat storage materials that can deal with temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius (1,050 degrees Fahrenheit). RWE is working towards construction of a 90 megawatt-hour (MWh) demonstration plant in Germany.

Other firms are working on better CAES systems. SustainX, a spinoff from Dartmouth University's engineering school and supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and GE, among others, has developed "isothermal CAES", which soaks up heat from the compressed air by injecting water vapor. The water absorbs the heat and is then stored, to be reused during the expansion process. SustainX uses steel pipes to store the compressed air, allowing a plant to be built wherever it is needed; the company has already built a 40 kilowatt-hour (kWh) demonstration unit, and is working with the utility AES to set up a megawatt-hour-class unit.

One variation on CAES is to liquefy the air -- first extracting carbon dioxide and water to keep the air from freezing solid, then cooling the remaining nitrogen and oxygen to liquid and storing it in a giant thermos flask. When energy is needed again, the liquid air is warmed to ambient, vaporizing it and using it to drive a power turbine. The scheme's only about 25% efficient in itself, but it could be considerably improved by co-locating the storage site next to a factory or other facility that generates lowgrade waste heat, which could be used to give the vaporization of the liquid air a kick. The air could be used to cool a gravel bed as it vaporizes, making the next cooling cycle more efficient as well.

Yet another approach to bulk energy storage is to sock it away as heat. That is the approach being taken by Isentropic, a company based in Cambridge, England. Isentropic calls its scheme "pumped heat electricity storage (PHES)"; it uses argon gas to transfer heat between two huge tanks filled with gravel. Incoming energy drives a heat pump, compressing and heating the argon and creating a temperature differential between the two tanks, with one at 500 degrees Celsius (870 degrees Fahrenheit) and the other at -160 degrees Celsius (-320 degrees Fahrenheit). When energy is required, the heat pump runs in reverse as a heat engine, driven by the argon from the hot tank, which is dumped into the cold tank. Insentropic claims a storage efficiency of from 72% to 80%.

It is estimated that over $120 billion USD will be invested in bulk energy storage from 2011 to 2021. Green-minded governments are providing incentives and encouragement for technology development and plant construction. However, government involvement also highlights legal issues: power markets are generally regulated, and bulk energy storage, as the US Electric Power Research Institute put it, creates "potential problems for current tariff, billing and metering approaches." The bureaucracy issues can be addressed, it's just a question of much bother it will be, and there's no doubt bulk energy storage is going to grow in importance.

ED: One of the interesting things about these energy storage systems is how they provide such neat examples of basic physics. They also suggest fairly hefty brute-force engineering projects; it might be interesting to know how many kilobucks it will require to store a kilowatt-hour. I have a suspicion that such systems have efficiencies of scale, or in other words they tend to become more efficient, and possibly more cost-effective, with size.

The article also mentioned a scheme being pushed by Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES) of Santa Monica, California, based on railroad cars on special tracks built on a hill. To store power, the cars are hauled up the hill, and to produce the cars roll back down again. They're working on a demonstration -- but that one I had real problems swallowing. Oh, and another thing, the article rated energy storage systems in "gigawatts" and the like, which makes no sense because watts are a unit of power, energy transfer per second, not energy. I had assume the author had just misinterpreted "gigawatt-hours", being unable to figure out what else he could have meant.



* WORLD WAR DRONE: The Obama Administration has acquired a reputation for regarding drones, or "unmanned aerial systems", as a preferred tool in the US war on global terrorism. The logic behind using drones is very strong: Americans have little enthusiasm for sending in the troops to fight in foreign countries, but have no great problem with sending in robot aircraft to pick off terrorists with precision-guided munitions.

The drones can orbit a target area for a day, keeping a "god's eye view" of a war area; when they find a target, they can take it out with one of the new low-cost, lightweight smart weapons, inflicting a minimum of collateral damage; or use a full-size smart bomb if a smoking crater is what's needed. If a drone crashes or is shot down, there's no pilot to be killed or be taken prisoner. Warfare is never anything resembling neat, but the drone campaign seems to come as close as possible in being so as might be conceived in the real world.

Reaper drone with smart bombs

As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Death From Afar", 3 November 2012), drones have played a highly visible role in the war in Afghanistan, and are likely to continue to do so even after the departure of US ground forces. They've also made a dent in al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan's unruly tribal areas, and more quietly have been at war in Yemen and Somalia. Obama played up his drone warfighting in the 2012 election to show he wasn't soft on defense; challenger Mitt Romney did not attempt to dispute the propriety of the drone war.

Even in a time of funding cutbacks, the drone war is in full swing. In Djibouti, an impoverished little country in the Horn of Africa, the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) uses a former French Foreign Legion outpost, Camp Lemonnier, as a hub for drone operations in the region, performing sorties around the clock to observe and, when necessary, strike. The pilots are at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, about halfway around the world. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is said to operate another base at a secret location on the Arabian Peninsula, with JSOC and the CIA coordinating their drone actions.

More is planned. In an address at a Washington DC defense think tank, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta commented that the "campaign against al-Qaeda will largely take place outside declared combat zones, using a small-footprint approach that includes precision operations, partnered activities with foreign Special Operations Forces, and capacity building so that partner countries can be more effective in combating terrorism on their own."

The JSOC is spending $1.4 billion USD on new construction at Camp Lemonnier, and the drone war is expanding its scope. Al-Qaeda seems to be moving into north Mali; drones may be keeping an eye on things there, or even performing attacks already. Other potential hot spots include Nigeria and Libya. The US is acquiring more Predator and Reaper drones -- and no doubt an array of other platforms, air-dropped sensors, and smarter munitions -- while ramping up JSOC headcount by 8,000.

The stealthy nature of the drone war raises concerns. Nobody publicly knows how many people have been killed in drone strikes, with estimates running to about 3,000 people. How many of those were Black Hats? How many were innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire? By all accounts, such as there are accounts, considerable care has been taken in picking targets, but it is simply impossible to rule out collateral damage: it happens. To make the discomfort worse, there has been a loosening of the rules to increase the number of acceptable "targets".

There are also concerns about the CIA's deep involvement in the drone war; although the JSOC is a covert operations organization, it is still part of the regular military, and so in principle under closer oversight than the CIA. The drone war is being driven as a priority from the top and so that gives the agency an incentive to be prominently involved. However, the drone war also represents a potential liability to the CIA, since the agency, as a "black" operation, is inevitably seen by the public as shady, and piling up a body count doesn't help the agency's reputation. Some suggest that the CIA is forsaking its duty to perform intelligence in favor of a combat role better handled by JSOC.

The Obama administration possesses a counter-terrorism "playbook" -- a set of rules in which the drone strikes play a major part -- and a preliminary "disposition matrix" -- a database of terrorist suspects and a menu providing options for dealing with them. Both are being refined to reflect a range of factors, including considerations of transparency and accountability.

Obama has publicly addressed worries about the drone war effort, demonstrating that the administration is perfectly aware of the ambiguities of the effort. The president has repudiated "bending the rules" in the fight against terrorism, or accepting that the ends justify the means, and has worried about a "slippery slope into a place where we're not being true to who we are."

In September, Obama delivered a televised speech outlining his policy in the drone war, setting out five rules:

Obama notably did not mention as a principle that America needed the consent of the country where attacks are to take place as a precondition to action. Another issue not addressed, difficult to address, is how the administration would react if Russia or China adopted similar tactics against people the US regards as friendlies.

The drone war is going to continue; since it can never be perfectly neat and it can never be perfectly transparent to the public, it is also going to continue to be controversial. We also can predict that mistakes happen, and given the expanding scope of the drone war, sooner or later there's going to be disastrous blunders. Wars are like that.



* HUMAN MICROBIOME (4): The human microbiome doesn't just consist of bacteria. Viruses are common and they seem to be necessary for the health of the whole -- which seems odd since viruses are necessarily parasitic. Many of the viruses in the microbiome are "bacteriophages" that parasitize bacteria, helping to keep bacteria under control; however, some of the viruses normally do parasitize human cells, but cause us no harm.

The microbiome also includes fungi. In yet another recent paper David Underhill, a researcher at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, and his colleagues reported on the fungal species in the guts of humans and other mammals. In mice, for example, they cataloged 100 species of fungi that are new to science, along with 100 already known. Using microbiome-deprived mice, they also unraveled some of the mechanisms by which the immune system tolerates the fungi.

Upset the balance of the microbiome with overuse of antibiotics and big trouble follows; future generations will no doubt wonder how ignorant we had to be to not realize it. One particularly significant problem is the bacterial species Clostridium difficile, last discussed here earlier this year. C. difficile appears to be adapted to exploiting an unbalanced microbiome, and sometimes invades a person's gut following a course of antibiotics. From 2000 to 2009, the number of hospitalized patients in the United States found to have C. difficile more than doubled, from 139,000 to 336,000.

Once established, as discussed in the earlier article it can be hard to eradicate, with fecal transplants -- suppositories of bacteria from healthy stool to victims -- often proving effective. Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada recently reviewed 124 fecal transplants and concluded that the procedure is safe and effective, with 83% of patients experiencing immediate improvement as their internal ecosystems were restored. The procedure has been improved, with the bacteria filtered out of stool to reduce the "ick" factor for recipients.

There are hopes that ultimately the procedure might be reduced to simply taking a pill. However, researchers have doubts about such "probiotic" medications. Although manufacturers of products advertised for their probiotic virtues have been raking in big money, those involved in microbiome studies think they're mostly selling hype, that the research -- if any -- underlying such products has been "shoddy and flimsy". Still, researchers are optimistic that microbiome research will have a big practical payoff, though they warn that the complexities of the microbiome will not be easy to unravel, and that it may not be easy to teach doctors to think like like ecologists. Modern doctors traditionally prescribe medicines; a subtler approach, with a resemblance to the balancing of yin and yan in Chinese medicine, is alien to their tradition.

* In yet another article on the same theme, this one from AAAS SCIENCE ("Taking Stock Of The Human Microbiome & Disease" by Michael Balter, 8 June 2012), Big Science has been taking a keen interest in the human microbiome. Over the past five years, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has pumped $170 million USD into the "Human Microbiome Project (HMP)". It has been complemented by a European program, named "Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (MetaHIT)", funded to the tune of about $30 million USD, as well as various government-funded studies in France, Japan, Canada, and elsewhere.

Lita Proctor, a microbial ecologist and boss of the HMP, pointed out the significance of microbiome research: "We humans co-evolved with our microbial communities. It is this co-evolved relationship that has expanded our capabilities beyond what is coded in our genomes to defend against disease, adapt to new environments, exploit a diverse diet, and thrive as a species."

We obviously obtain benefits from our commensals; but of course our dependence on them contains liabilities. When the balance of our microbiome is thrown off, it can raise hell for the host, potentially causing problems such as cancer, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, skin conditions, asthma, or maybe even autism. However, the human microbiome research community is now faced with an organizational challenge to tackle such questions, since both HMP and MetaHIT come to an end this year. What will follow them? Will research be directed in a top-down fashion? Or will it be driven by investigator proposals? [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 07 DEC 12] THE TORPEDO (19)

* THE TORPEDO (19): The US Navy's Mark 37 wire-guided torpedo was an excellent weapon, but it was ineffective against nuclear-powered adversary submarines that could move at high speed at deep depths. Two solutions were developed to deal with this problem.

The first was the "Mark 45" AKA "ASTOR" torpedo, which was fitted with a nuclear warhead. It was electric powered using a seawater battery, and had a speed of 74 KPH (46 MPH / 40 KT) with a maximum range of 13,760 meters (15,000 yards). It had classic gyro / depth control guidance along with the wire guidance system, but no homing -- the submarine controlled the torpedo with wire guidance using the submarine's sonar system, and given the wide radius of destruction provided by the weapon, obviously fine targeting wasn't necessary. The warhead was detonated by command over the wire guidance system, the belief being that nobody wanted to trust setting off a nuclear device to an idiot automatic fuzing system.

The Mark 45 went into service in 1963 but was withdrawn in 1976, when the highly capable and definitive "Mark 48" homing torpedo went into service. Handling nukes was troublesome in itself and few officers felt much confidence in being handed a weapon they couldn't use in a shooting war without direct authorization from the White House -- and, if used, implied the Apocalypse. The 1950s / 1960s were a period of time when the US went "nuke crazy", fielding huge numbers of tactical munitions until the reality sank in that their attractive destructive power came on an iron leash. The introduction of truly "smart" weapons from the late 1960s provided a much better solution in all regards, with tactical nuclear weapons going on the fade in consequence.

* The "Mark 48" represented the less drastic solution of simply designing a better conventional homing torpedo, in effect a much improved Mark 37. Work on such a weapon began in 1956, leading to a a formal development program from 1960. Goals were a heavyweight torpedo with a speed of 102 KPH (63 MPH / 55 KT), a maximum range of 32,100 meters (35,000 yards), and a maximum depth of 760 meters (2,500 feet).

An initial "Mod 0" was developed but didn't enter production, since in 1967 the decision had been made to add an anti-surface vessel capability -- weapons programs tend to be afflicted with "feature creep", sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Whatever the case, a "Mod 1" was introduced to service in 1972.

Mark 48 torpedo

The Mark 48 Mod 1 had a form factor of 53 x 584 centimeters (21 x 230 inches), a weight of 1,560 kilograms (3,440 pounds), with a maximum speed of 102 KPH (63 MPH / 55 KT) and a range of 32,100 meters (35,000 yards). It could dive to 760 meters (2,500 feet) and had a target acquisition range of 3,670 meters (4,000 yards). Its electronic systems were modular -- reducing maintenance by permitting swapout of "line replaceable units", and also simplifying upgrades. There were some teething problems, but in maturity it proved devastatingly effective. Its only significant defect was that it was noisy, due to the fact that it used a combustion engine driven by a monopropellant fuel; seawater battery propulsion couldn't meet the performance specs. The monopropellant fuel is called "Otto" fuel, by the way.

The Mod 1 was followed by the "Mod 3", which added a two-way communications capability to the wire-guidance system to return sonar and operating data (course, speed, depth, and so on) from the torpedo to the launch submarine. The Mod 3 was followed in turn by the "Mod 4", which added "envelope expansion", including increased speed and deeper diving, along with a "fire and forget" capability. Earlier Mark 48s were upgraded to Mod 4 standard.

* In the mid-1970s, faster and deeper-diving Soviet submarines led the Navy to issue a requirement for a more capable heavy torpedo. The Mark 48 Mod 4 was introduced as a short-term solution, but the longer-term solution was to re-think the Mark 48. There was some thought of calling the new torpedo the "Mark 49" but it ended up being named the "Mark 48 Mod 5 Advanced Capability (ADCAP)". The starting point was the Mark 48 Mod 4, with improvements in the shell and a modified piston engine to give a speed of 116 KPH (63 KT). The guidance system was completely changed to a compact digital system and an inertial guidance system, finally getting rid of the gyros and permitting increased fuel storage. The Mark 48 ADCAP was introduced in 1990.

It was followed in 1997 by the "Mark 48 Mod 6", with updated electronics and a quieter propulsion system, which was followed in turn in 2006 by the "Mark 48 Mod 7 Common Broadband Advanced Sonar System (CBASS)", developed in collaboration with the Australians. The Mark 48 CBASS includes a modernized and much smarter sonar system, with enhanced counter-countermeasures capability. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online blogs reports that an inventor named Jonathan Dandrow has come up with "NoPhoto", a countermeasures system to spoof automated traffic light violation cameras. All it amounts to is a license-plate frame with an optical sensor that picks up the flash from a traffic-light camera. When the sensor sees the flash, it triggers two xenon lamps in the frame that floodlight the license plate, ensuring the camera can't read it.

NoPhoto is legal because it doesn't hide the license plate. Dandrow plans to sell it for $350 USD, less than a traffic ticket. However, there's a lot of public resistance to the automated cameras, many seeing them as the law going beyond the pale, and at present their use seems to be gradually dwindling. Dandrow may be trying to jump into a market that's drying up.

* Wireless power recharging schemes were last discussed here in 2010. With such technology, a gadget such as a cellphone is fitted with a receiver coil and then laid on top of a surface with a charging coil underneath; at short ranges the losses from coil to coil are negligible. Wireless recharging is obviously attractive for its convenience, and as reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, it's become the focus of a standards war.

Proctor & Gamble, maker of Duracell batteries, has established the "Duracell Powermat" standard, working in collaboration with wireless power startup Powermat Systems. Proctor & Gamble has been lining up venues such as Starbucks and Delta Air Lines Sky Clubs to install Powermat chargers in their customer tables; P&G also has been working with cellphone carriers to push the Powermat technology, and persuading Walmart and Best-Buy to carry the rechargers.

Powermat recharger

Powermat's biggest competition is from the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). backed by Energizer, Nokia, and LG Electronics. The WPC scheme, named "Qi", is already available in some Google, Nokia, and LG phones, and the WPC group is also pushing auto-makers to incorporate Qi chargers. In addition to WPC, there's the Alliance For Wireless Power (A4WP), a group led by Samsung.

Nobody's exactly sure when the standards battle will be resolved, some believing it won't be until 2014. One big issue is that Apple, whose iPhone is the world's most popular smartphone, hasn't endorsed a standard yet. Apple is notorious for going its own way, so it wouldn't be out of the question for Apple to spite everyone and come out with their own scheme -- then tell everyone to pay royalties if they want to use it. Seen from the outside, it could be judged that Apple would be more sensible in pushing towards conformance on wireless recharging than in further confounding the issue in a battle the company might not win, and doesn't have so much at stake to want to try. The view from the outside is, of course, not necessarily the same as the view from the inside; in November, an Apple patent came to light for a wireless recharging scheme, so Apple might well be planning to go it alone.

* A mathematician named Samuel Arbesman writing on WIRED Online came up with a "modest proposal" of the sort that's hard to know if it's crazy or brilliant. He started with the observation that lots of people love to watch sports events, and then added that contemporary videogame technology can provide fairly good sports simulations. So, Arbesman concluded, why shouldn't there be a viewing market for fully virtual sports competitions?

Arbesman wasn't talking about watching people playing videogames; no, the competition would be a simulation, one simulated team playing another, with no predetermined outcome and random factors influencing the play. He admitted that the direct human element would be lacking, but for major league sports, star players become to a degree media constructs anyway. As far as I'm concerned, celebrities look like fictions; I've long thought that it would seem as surreal to me to run into a famous media star as it would be to run into Bugs Bunny. On the other side of that coin, if we were to create virtual sports stars, why couldn't we take them almost as seriously as the real thing?

Of course, without being bound to reality, we could have competitions between superhero teams or whatever, Arbesman proposing the "Lovecraftian Arkham Fighting Cephalopods" and the "Rowlingian Chudley Cannons". We could then sell merchandise for the most popular teams and then watch the virtual star players fight their way through a virtual game season. Arbesman was certainly joking a bit in his proposal, but he was also asking: WHY NOT? It seems unlikely that the current generation of viewers would like the idea of virtual sports competitions much, though it might be done as filler on sports channels. However, a future generation immersed in the digital world from childhood might have no problem with sports virtualization, and with improved simulation tech, it might seem hard to understand why they would.



* WARFIGHTING & HEALTH CARE: While nobody would characterize the US military as particularly warm and fuzzy, the services do care about the health of the troops. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("From Soldiers To Veterans, Good Health To Bad" by Sam Kean, 8 June 2012), the military badly dropped the ball in the First Gulf War, keeping sloppy health records and failing to monitor field conditions. To be sure, it was difficult to take care of such things while fighting a war, but the failure to do so left the brass flat-footed when veterans of the conflict started showing a range of health problems that became known as "Gulf War syndrome". There wasn't enough data to figure out what was going on, with the military then being pilloried by Congress and veteran's groups.

The lesson was taken to heart. When the Second Gulf War came in 2003, some experts on the Gulf War syndrome -- such as Simon Wessely, a professor of psychology at King's College London -- feared that the same problems would crop up again, and with support of the US military set up extensive epidemiological research. Coalition forces also performed detailed environmental studies, with the US Army alone collecting 25,000 samples of air, water, soil, and other materials in Iraq and Afghanistan, checking out everything from garage-pit burns to fires in sulfur mines. The US Defense Medical Surveillance System, set up in 1980, has also been expanding; it now holds data on 9.3 million personnel, stores 54 million serum samples, and has been of late linking the samples to databases tracking the health of the troops following deployments.

It has proven difficult to obtain the comprehensive data required to link long-term health of military personnel to various exposures, but now the military does have a fair idea of what the troops might have been exposed to, providing insights to doctors treating them. One thing is thankfully clear, Wessely saying: "There wasn't a repeat of the Gulf War syndrome. There's no Iraq War syndrome."

The brass have been able to breath more easily, knowing there isn't a pack of activist organizations and Congressfolk howling after them. However, as Wesseley puts it, all wars have their trademark injury, and mental health has been the big concern in the wake of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars have a tendency to be emotionally debilitating in the first place; grinding fights against insurgencies are particularly troublesome because troops are in a environment where they are being continually sniped at and have troubles telling enemies from friends, reducing them to a continuous state of fear and rage. There's been a troublesome high rate of suicides among veterans.

the war, never ending

The military has not tried to sweep these problems under a rug, either. Colonel Charles Engel, a psychiatrist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, sees a different attitude, an "open acknowledgement of health challenges", than existed in the wake of past conflicts, and that funding for mental health programs hasn't been a problem.

Engel says the biggest payoff for improving the mental health of troops is in enhancing surveillance in primary care. The US Army has now set up a scheme named "Re-Engineering Systems of Primary Care Treatment in the Military" -- tortured, as the military has a habit of doing, into the acronym "RESPECT-Mil" -- that has educated 2,700 primary care doctors and nurses to spot signs of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, as a new addition, alcohol abuse by running through a standard list of questions in the course of medical appointments with veterans.

RESPECT-Mil has performed about two million screenings so far, turning up tens of thousands of soldiers who were thinking about suicide. Engel says that in the general population, about 60% of those who commit suicide visit a primary care facility in the month before taking killing themselves; he assumes the rate is at least the same for the military, maybe greater. Along with monitoring by RESPECT-Mil, the military has set up a veteran's suicide hotline.

Since 2003, the military has also been performing screenings outside of medical settings, particularly before and after deployments. The troops fill out questionnaires to probe them for stress disorder and depression, as well as pain, exposure to chemicals, and signs of traumatic brain injury. Up to 15% of returning service members show signs of mild brain injury, which very much worries military health care staff. Studies show PTSD appears in about a third of service members who have been injured, compared to about a tenth of those who haven't, with PTSD victims reporting not only high stress levels but insomnia, headaches, chest pains, faintness, and sexual dysfunction.

Servicemembers who were knocked out by blasts, even momentarily, suffered more PTSD and worse health than those who were simply dazed -- an issue discussed more broadly here in 2008. PTSD also takes a different course in service members, who have to literally soldier on for a time, than in civilians, who tend to fall prey to it soon after the traumatic event that caused it. Indeed, active-duty troops are very reluctant to admit to emotional problems, feeling it would be a stigma and make administrative problems for them. The military has now set up new waves of post-deployment screening, checking the troops at three and six months, then at one or two years.

The measures are not working perfectly; coverage is incomplete and troops don't always answer the questionnaires fully or truthfully. The military is reluctant to force health screening on the troops, punishing them for noncompliance. Troops also appear to have worries over privacy; a small study showed they were much more likely to admit to emotional problems in answering anonymous questionnaires than when they signed their names. There is the further problem that not all of them get timely help when they ask for it -- a study showing that of the requests made to the US Veteran's Health Administration for such assistance, only half got initial evaluations in the stated goal time of two weeks. In some cases, they waited for almost three months.

The military is striving to improve procedures and educate the troops to seek help when they need it. Engel says: "They've been trained to put the needs of others ahead of their own needs, and they're acutely aware that their health problems could alter the shape of their military careers. We've been trying throughout these conflicts to emphasize that health care is the solution, not the problem ... and that it's unrecognized problems that can balloon up and alter their military careers."



* ONLINE VOTING: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Paper Cuts", 27 October 2012), it seems a little archaic to be filling out paper ballots in elections in the 21st century. There has been a push since the 1990s to go to electronic voting machines at polling places, but results have been mixed. They're doing well enough for themselves in poorer countries, where the logistics of a paper poll are more painfully cumbersome and many citizens are illiterate. Brazil, India, and Venezuela are all enthusiasts, with Indian machines throttling votes to five per minute -- to impede ballot-stuffing -- and Venezuela's very advanced machines being keyed by voter fingerprints.

Richer countries haven't been so happy with electronic voting machines. Ireland bought a pile of them in 2002:2003 but recently scrapped them due to worries about reliability; the USA used fewer voting machines in the 2012 elections than were used in 2006. The problem is that electronic voting machines are seen as insecure, making faults with voting hard to see, and in potential easy to spoof with malware.

Electronic voting machines tend to seem clumsy anyway, and voting machines run to a hefty investment, amounting to billions of dollars in the USA. Why not just vote online and be done with it? There are certainly issues with security, but it does seem to be catching on, with Australia and Canada being among eleven nations that have used online voting in real elections. Ballots cast online made up 24% of the votes in Estonia's 2011 parliamentary election, up from 5.5% in 2007. Norway may allow online voting in the country's 2013 general election.

To reduce the impact of technical failures or cyber-attacks, Estonia gives citizens several weeks to vote online -- and they can change their vote any time they like, up to election day. If they do wait to election day to vote, they have to go to a polling place to do so, lest last-minute system failures confound the online vote tally. However, Estonia has national ID cards, simplifying online voting; places such as the USA and the UK have been cautious of a national ID system. Estonia also has very good cybersecurity; elsewhere, people don't feel so confident about the internet. A test online election was run in Washington DC in 2010, the word going out that software researchers should try to crack it -- which they did, bringing the system to its knees and reducing it to a shambles. The most the USA has formally done is to allow citizens to get ballots online and then submit them through normal channels.

Some believe that online voting should help reverse falling voter turnouts, and claim that voters should be able to make more informed decisions turning in their ballots from the comfort of their own homes instead of after standing in line at polling places. Possibly so, but low voter turnout seems to be due more to disenchantment with the political process than anything else, and a small study performed in Finland showed stay-at-home voters were inclined to favor more extreme positions; being part of the crowd at a polling station encourages moderation. Online voting does look like a coming thing, but thinking that it's going to change voter mindsets in significant ways is likely asking too much of it.



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by TIME Online, America's soreheads are now amusing themselves by petitioning the White House to allow their states to secede from the Union, with Texas racking up the most names. Not to be outdone, a counter-petition was set up, titled: "Deport Everyone That Signed A Petition To Withdraw Their State From The United States Of America".

An essayist named Chuck Thompson, commenting in THE NEW REPUBLIC magazine, examined the case for Texas secession and judged that the state might not do so badly for itself as an independent nation -- it started out as one, after all, and it's been weathering the Great Recession pretty well -- but suggested that Texas could opt for semi-autonomy, along the lines of Guam or Puerto Rico. Or maybe, Thompson added, the Federal government could just allocate some funds and give the Texas secessionists what they want, free passage to a land that fits their requirements, with:


... a small federal government with limited power and meager influence over the private lives of its citizens; extremely weak trade unions routinely sabotaged by the federal government (IE, a "pro-business environment"); negligible income tax; few immigrants, legal or otherwise; a dominant Christian population, accounting for some 70% of the people; no mandatory health insurance or concept of universal health care; a strong social taboo surrounding homosexuality and a constitution that already states: "All individuals have the right to marry a person of their choice of the opposite sex." -- and a gun culture so ubiquitous that you can find automatic weaponry displayed openly on the streets of its capital city and in many households.

Sound like a Texan secessionist's dream? Well, it's no dream. This country already exists. It's called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Of course, as American history has emphatically demonstrated, the US Federal government does not recognize that states have the right to unilaterally secede from the Union. There is no provision in the US Constitution to allow for it, and attempts by states to "nullify" Federal authority were shot down by the Supreme Court well before the Civil War -- the states do have a legal right to challenge Federal authority, but they can't simply defy national law and get away with it. It's not that anyone really expects a US state to try to secede anyway -- the petitions are of course theatrics, and the buffoonery will die out once people get bored with it.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, toymaker Hasbro is introducing the big new toy for the Christmas season: the Furby.

Say what? Why bring back a Clinton-era toy? It was a big hit in the 1990s, bringing in a staggering half-billion dollars a year in sales at its peak, but toys are here today, gone tomorrow, and when they're gone they don't come back again as they did before. Hasbro hopes to leverage off twenty-somethings who played with Furbies as kids by offering a smarter Furby.

The original Furby was supposed to be smart, capable of a degree of learning behavior, but it was a fraud: it ran according to a structured program that simply kicked in more over time, and once it got up to full capability was predictable. Hasbro claims the new Furby really does have learning capability, along with an enhanced ability to respond to the actions of its owner. It can also communicate with other Furbies with inaudible acoustic signals. Hasbro says the new Furby actually does end up with a "personality" unique to each toy, based on how it's been treated. Incidentally, the new Furbies have electronic-display instead of mechanical eyes.


How well this flies the second time around remains to be seen. I probably won't be picking up a Furby myself. I found them only mildly amusing when they were new. I recall that somebody handed me one at work to play with a bit, and a woman I worked with picked it up and looked it over. I asked: "What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to see if it's a boy or a girl."

"What, they're anatomically correct?"

"No. The girls have manes."


I did go looking around for blinking LED lights for my Christmas tree this season, and I found a set made by Philips that was the right price -- but when I got it home, only ten of the lights in the string blinked. I was puzzled, but on looking over the fine print I found that yes, that was the fact. I returned them to the store, suggesting to the clerk that the store were likely to get a lot of returns on that product. That's the third time I've been burned on a Philips product, and presumably the last, Philips clearly having a company culture inclined to the slipshod. Anyway, it doesn't look like blinking LED Christmas lights will be on the shelves in quantity for a few years. It would seem fairly simple to add a blinker circuit to each socket, but apparently nobody's made the investment in the tech yet.

* I kitted up the site stats for November and was puzzled to notice that visitors to the Air Vectors site had doubled from October. More puzzling was that the doubling was strictly due to visits to chapter two of my MiG-27 strike fighter document. Apparently somebody was linking to it?

On investigation -- oh right, the XKCD webcomic had an incidental link to it, I forgot that somebody had mentioned that on my Twitter feed. The added traffic was a mixed blessing; more traffic was all to the good, more people would see Air Vectors and some small fraction of them would come back, but then again the burst in enthusiasm was obviously temporary, only running a week or two and then disappearing forever. In addition, I was getting a big hint about just how much more clout, in terms of traffic, XKCD had than did Air Vectors. I felt puny.

Whatever. I shrug and continue to work on the websites. I was finding it a bit troublesome to find nice top banner illustrations for the blog, but then I discovered the "WallBase" website, home for almost 1.5 million digital wallpapers. I've got into the habit of checking through the random selection page on WallBase a few times a day when I get bored. The general quality level is high, though the wallpapers unsurprisingly tend to be channeled into a range of predictable categories: comix, anime, video games, movies, cars, weapons, military hardware, computer graphics, and general gimmicky / artsy photographs. The artsy photographs reinforce my belief that, though any shutterbug likes to take pretty pictures of landscapes and the like, they tend to become routine and are on the low tier of interesting.

Of course, femmes are heavily represented. Jessica Alba is prominent, as are Megan Fox, Angelina Jolie, and HARRY POTTER's Emma Watson, with Nashville singer Taylor Swift also on the top list. To each his tastes.